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Port: Public must keep a sharp eye on relationship between local politicians, opioid lawyers

MINOT, N.D. -- More and more local governments in North Dakota are deciding to join themselves to lawsuits against the opioid industry over the objections of Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

Stenehjem joined North Dakota with several other states in a lawsuit against Oxycontin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, and has warned local governments that joining separate suits independent of the state could limit their ability to access any settlement dollars the state wins.

But local governments like Grand Forks County and the Bismarck City Commission, lobbied heavily various law firms, have eschewed this advice.

Taxpayers ought to sit up and take notice. These high profile lawsuits are a veritable industry in the legal community. When law firms like South Carolina-based Motley Rice, the firm chosen by Grand Forks County and the City of Bismarck, get government clients they stand to make a lot of money.

Which makes the temptation for unseemly relationships between the law firms and the politicians who hire them very real.

Motley Rice, specifically, is a good example of this.

Jack McConnell, who has since been appointed to the federal bench by former President Barack Obama, worked for the Motley Rice law firm when then-North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp appointed him to be special assistant attorney general "for purposes of representing the state of North Dakota in tobacco litigation."

For his work on behalf of North Dakota and several other states, McConnell has received millions and will continue to get at least $2.25 million a year in payouts through 2024 (even while he serves as a federal judge).

Here’s where things start to get a little seedy.

In 2000, when Heitkamp was leaving her position as attorney general to run for governor, McConnell and his wife gave $30,000 to her campaign while his law firm donated $73,000 to the North Dakota Democratic Party.

In her 2012 campaign for the U.S. Senate, the Motley Rice law firm poured $46,750 into Heitkamp's coffers according to OpenSecrets.org, making that firm her largest source of individual political contributions.

In the 2018 cycle, Motley Rice donated over $110,000 into Heitkamp’s ultimately unsuccessful campaign, making them her No. 2 source of campaign funds behind Alphabet, Inc. (the Google parent company) and ahead of Goldman Sachs.

Heitkamp gave Motley Rice a very lucrative appointment in pursuit of the tobacco lawsuits, and in return the South Carolina law firm spent big money on Heitkamp’s North Dakota campaigns.

Nothing about this was illegal, but I’m not sure it’s what most of us would call ethical.

Which brings me back to the local opioid lawsuits.

The public needs to keep a sharp eye on the relationships between local politics and firms like Motley Rice, and ask whether the litigation local governments are signing up for is in the public interest or the interest of millionaire lawyers and the politicians they cozy up to.

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