Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson was the featured guest of the Gig Harbor Mid-Day Rotary on Sept. 26. Ferguson started by drawing a parallel with the Rotary motto of “service above self.”
“Everybody in my office works according to that same principle, it’s all about service to the community,” Ferguson said. “We have about 1,100 employees. We are the largest law firm in the state of Washington.
“Everyone in my firm could easily walk into a private law firm and make a lot more money,” he said. They stay to work for you in the public sector because they want to be of service.”
Ferguson said the office receives about 30,000 consumer complaints a year, which he described as a huge volume.
“The consumer protection team of our office is about 80 people: attorneys, investigators and professional staff. It’s a big operation and growing larger for obvious reasons,” Ferguson said. “It’s actually a huge moneymaker for the state and it gets dollars back to the consumers who were harmed. We are the only department in the state that is a net revenue generator.”
The attorney general also enforces the state’s campaign finance law.
“In 1972, an initiative passed in Washington that if you make a political donation to it (a political campaign), it has to be out in the public. Washington has certain limits on how much you can give to political candidates. There is no limit to the amount of contributions to an initiative campaign, but you still have to disclose it,” he said.
In 2013, the attorney general filed suit against the Grocers Manufacturers Association (GMA), a trade group based in Washington, D.C. that came up with an idea to hide donations made by big corporations opposed to Washington’s I-522, which would have required labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in products sold within Washington state.
“The corporations feared a repeat of the consumer backlash they experienced only the year before, openly contributing millions of dollars defeating a similar initiative in California,” Ferguson said.
Consumer boycotts, coupled with bad press to defeat the initiative, had potential to cut into their bottom line. The Grocers Manufacturers Association set out to fool the state campaign finance regulators while adding over $10 million to influence the vote, he said.
“The judge agreed with our arguments and in a stunning rebuke, not only awarded the state $6 million in damages but because she found the nature of the respondent’s offense so egregious in nature, she had the option of tripling the damages to $18 million plus payment of our legal expenses for the case,” he said.
“You can’t violate Washington’s campaign finance laws with the stated purpose of fooling state regulators by hiding the names of the true political donors,” Ferguson said.
Grocers Manufacturers provided cover for companies such as Nestlé USA, The Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo, General Mills, ConAgra, Campbell Soup, The Hershey Co., JM Smucker, Kellogg and Land O’Lakes.
“It was the single-largest campaign-finance settlement in the history of the country,” Ferguson said.
Following the meeting, Ferguson spent a few minutes with the KP News to touch on some of the recent cases his office is pursuing on behalf of all Washington residents.
KP News: In less than a month, the AG’s office filed three separate lawsuits against CHI Franciscan, St Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma and Capitol Medical Center in Olympia. What’s happening in the nonprofit healthcare arena from your perspective?
Ferguson: I’ve asked the team to ramp up our work on the healthcare industry in general, which is not an area the AG’s office has historically been involved in. With CHI, we thought they engaged in businesses practices that were unlawful during a merger acquisition.
Both St. Joseph Hospital and Capitol Hospital unlawfully put obstacles in the way of tens of thousands of patients seeking access to affordable health care. As attorney general, I’m committed to fighting for access to affordable care for all Washingtonians.
All hospitals must follow state charity care laws; whether nonprofit or for-profit, they must follow the law. We feel the end result in all these cases was harm to consumers who have to navigate the complex world that we know as healthcare. In my view, the facts of those last two lawsuits, in particular, were really egregious.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)
Washington joined 14 other states and the District of Columbia to sue the Trump administration’s move to rescind the Obama-era DACA program that protected from deportation undocumented immigrants who arrived as children under age 16 before 2007. Some 19,000 DACA recipients living in Washington state are under the threat of deportation.
KP News: What’s happening on DACA now?
Ferguson: We are appealing Donald Trump’s rescission of DACA. We filed our lawsuit in the Eastern District in New York. Washington is the lead in that case, along with Massachusetts and New York. We had to figure out the best place to file.
There is a hearing today (Sept. 26), but the judge won’t decide the DACA case today — it’s more like the judge determining what the schedule is going to be and how much information will we be able get from the federal government in terms of depositions and information. It’s an important hearing that was going to be argued and we hope for some clarity soon on when we are likely to have a hearing on that.
The Opioid Crisis
The interview took place a few days before he announced the lawsuit against Purdue Pharmaceuticals, which was the announcement Ferguson alluded to below. (See related story.) [LINK TO OPIATES STORY}
KP News: Your office held a two-day conference on the opioid crisis last spring. What did you learn from that and what can we look for next?
Ferguson: I have to tell you to stay tuned on that. There will be an announcement very soon this week.
When we held that conference last June, every seat was sold out. They were holding the event at a lecture hall on the University of Washington campus. When they told me, I said, what a minute, do you realize how big that is? That holds like over 500 people.
They filled all those seats. People came from all across the state. Now, we’re building off that. I will have proposals for the state Legislature to adopt policy changes, to help address the epidemic that we’re seeing, but I’m not at liberty to preview those for you quite yet.
The ‘Culvert Case’
The Attorney General’s Office recently asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the so-called “culverts case,” officially known as United States of America et al v. State of Washington. The case, which began in 2001 when 21 tribes and the federal government sued the state, involves the interpretation of the meaning of 1850s treaties between the federal government and western Washington Indian Tribes. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals interpretation of the phrasing of “the right of taking fish… sufficient to …provide a moderate living to the tribes” contradicts previous interpretations by the U.S. Supreme Court on the 1850s era treaty.
KP News: Can you tell us a little bit about the so-called “the culvert case”?
Ferguson: The tribes sued the state of Washington in order to shorten the timeline and ultimately require the state to have culvert replacements in place by 2030. We lost in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals so we are seeking an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court has to decide whether they will take the case or not. We’ve told them they really need to take up this case.
Once the tribes sued, my office got the job of defending the state, so now I’m going to defend it. For us on the legal side, the case is more than just about culverts. The 9th Circuit opinion was very, very broad and would apply in many circumstances. There are huge implications for the state, financial and otherwise.
We also think the federal government should be paying for some of this too because they were the ones that told us the designs to use for the culverts. When those culverts didn’t work, the federal government is actually now suing us, which we find somewhat ironic.
KP News: In your petition, are you arguing that the state shouldn’t do culvert replacement or are you petitioning the court for a more refined matrix to logically prioritize some culvert replacement projects and perhaps not replace others at all?
Ferguson: Well, you’re right, that’s one potential outcome. Every culvert is different. Will that particular culvert replacement make a difference for salmon downstream? If the answer is yes, then yes, it should be replaced. In other situations, if something is not going to make any difference for salmon, then that makes no sense to us as well.
We think the 9th Circuit Court decision was too broad but it is important to point out that the state can and should fund culvert replacements that need to be replaced; we are not suggesting they shouldn’t be replaced — that’s not at all what we are arguing.
I find it ironic that certain elected officials have said to me, “Bob, you shouldn’t have appealed that decision.” But they’re the ones in charge of setting a budget that would fund these things and it’s been an issue for a very long time. However, I’m not in control of the budget. I’m in charge of the legal side.
Nothing prevents the state from moving forward much more significantly to debate for these replacements. They need to be done.