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Commentary: Heitkamp's unseemly relationship with tobacco litigators should be a cautionary tale for opioid lawsuits

MINOT, N.D.—The state of North Dakota has, thanks to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, joined a lawsuit against the opioid industry that's reminiscent of the litigation backed by the states against the tobacco industry decades ago.

Local governments are also considering filing their own suits independent of our state government.

The political leadership in Cass County has already opted to go that route, while leaders in Ward (Minot) and Grand Forks counties are still considering the matter.

Should these local governments be filing suit on their own?

Stenehjem's office doesn't think so, arguing litigation from both our state government and its political subdivisions could complicate and dilute any potential settlement for the taxpayers.

They're probably right.

That debate aside, one thing we need to be wary of is the relationship between the politicians making these decisions and the law firms filing the lawsuits.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's role involving North Dakota in the tobacco lawsuits is an example of how things can go wrong.

Jack McConnell, who has since been appointed to the federal bench by former President Barack Obama, worked for the South Carolina-based 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."

Heitkamp has tried to claim McConnell "didn't receive a dime for any legal work that he ever did for the state of North Dakota," but that's not exactly true.

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

Things start to get a little seedy when you consider McConnell and his law firm's support for Heitkamp's political aspirations.

In 2000, when Heitkamp was leaving her position as attorney general to run for governor, McConnell and his law firm donated $75,000 to her campaign.

In her 2012 campaign for the US 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.

So far in the 2018 cycle Motley Rice has contributed over $62,000 to Heitkamp's re-election campaign, making them her third largest source of individual contributions.

It might be fair to wonder if Heitkamp's motivations back when she was attorney general were rooted in our state's interests or her own political ambitions.

As the opioid lawsuits ramp up, we should be wary of today's politicians facing similar temptations.

It's not clear to me this sort of litigation is helpful to the public.

Certainly it's very lucrative for the legal industry, but our goal should be public interest not trial lawyer prosperity.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort

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