“When the city of Reno wanted to sue the opioid manufacturers for the damages they caused, Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt tried to stop Reno from holding them accountable. That may be because Laxalt took over $20,000 from opioid companies for its campaign.
— Cortez Masto adpublished on August 13
The Senate race between incumbent Cortez Masto and Republican challenger Adam Laxalt is one of the tightest in the nation.
Nevada has been one of the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis. In an attack ad, Cortez Masto accused Laxalt of refusing to prosecute opioid manufacturers when he was attorney general. The ad grimly suggests that Laxalt’s stance was influenced by campaign contributions.
It’s one of those highly technical issues that makes it ripe for campaign mischief. Coincidentally or not, after we started asking questions, the campaign released a new ad aimed more specifically at the criticism. This new ad removed the accusation that he refused to sue a particular company, but instead said he tried to stop Reno from taking action against the manufacturers.
Laxalt, son of Sen. Pete Domenici (RN.M.) and grandson of Governor and Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), served as state attorney general from 2015 to 2019.
In 2016, Nevada was ranked sixth among states for the number of milligrams of opioids dispensed per adult, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. In June 2017, Laxalt announced it was working with a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general to assess whether manufacturers had engaged in illegal practices in the marketing and sale of opioids.
Such multi-state investigations are often undertaken when a national crisis results in litigation. States pool investigative resources and negotiate settlements directly with manufacturers or other parties accused of wrongdoing. When Cortez Masto was Attorney General of Nevada, she was involved in a similar action against the Big Five mortgage managers accused of harming homeowners during the Great Recession. During her Senate run, she touted her role in getting that deal done.
The Cortez Masto ads are based on a dispute Laxalt’s office had with Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve in November 2017. Shortly after Laxalt announced he was running for governor, Schieve said that the city wanted to bring its own lawsuit against the opioid manufacturers. (Reno mayor is a nonpartisan position, but Schieve received support from Democrats when she ran and she ended up endorsing Laxalt’s opponent, Democrat Steve Sisolak, in the race for governor.)
Questions returned to Laxalt and Schieve did not answer a query. Based on our review of news excerpts and letters, as well as an interview with a former official in the Attorney General’s office, this appears to be a tactical dispute. Yet the ads turn it into a nefarious ploy to protect opioid manufacturers.
Indeed, Laxalt’s letter to Schieve urging it to suspend filing the lawsuit was also signed by Nevada consumer advocate Ernest Figueroa. He’s a respected nonpartisan figure in the state who was recently reappointed by Aaron Ford, the Democrat who succeeded Laxalt as attorney general.
The Laxalt-Figueroa letter said that “your initiative brings honor to all Nevadans” and that “we share the same objectives”. But he called for a “united front” to tackle the opioid crisis. In particular, the letter expressed concern that a separate lawsuit against Reno could “undermine Nevada’s position in the multistate investigation in which our office has been actively engaged for more than a year.”
“We thought the multi-state process was the best vehicle,” the former assistant to the Nevada attorney general said, speaking on condition of anonymity as the issue has become politically charged. He added that a separate trial was “uncharted territory” and that “we thought we could be kicked out of the multi-state process.”
Schieve responded with his own letter, saying his lawsuit would not affect the multistate settlement. “While I understand, and can certainly appreciate, your concerns about how a lawsuit from the city could impact this collective investigation, please know that I have serious concerns about the dramatic impact that the opioids have on our city, because of the exorbitant amounts of stress it puts on our emergency rooms to our public safety officers and the countless lives lost,” Schieve wrote.
In the end, Schieve ignored Laxalt and Figueroa and filed his own complaint 10 months after this exchange of letters. By then, Laxalt had already filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma and its affiliates. When the Reno lawsuit was filed, Laxalt applauded the action, having determined that it would not undermine Nevada’s standing in the multistate process. “When we weren’t kicked out, we were okay with the suit,” the former assistant said.
Not to get too far into the weeds, but when Ford became Nevada’s attorney general, his office joined the Reno lawsuit and opted out of the $26 billion multistate litigation, only to join him later. Under a 2021 agreement, the state shares settlement payments with 29 local government entities.
Ford, when he was Senate Majority Leader, helped push through an amendment in the final hours of the 2017 legislative session that removed a set of caps on fees recoverable by outside law firms that enter into conditional fee contracts with the state. He was working at the time for a litigation law firm, Eglet Adams, which contracted with municipalities such as Reno to sue opioid manufacturers. (Trial lawyers, of course, are among the biggest supporters of Democrats.)
In other words, tactics and politics have played a big role in the dispute over how best to sue opioid manufacturers. There wasn’t necessarily a right or wrong approach, and eventually the state merged the two. It should be noted that when Laxalt sought the GOP nomination for governor, his main opponent, state treasurer Dan Schwartz, also attacked him for discouraging the Reno lawsuit.
Now watch how these ads frame this murky disagreement:
- The first ad claims that Laxalt “refused to sue an opioid company that dumped 400 million pills on our streets.” This flimsy assertion is based on the fact that a company was named in the Reno lawsuit that had not yet been addressed in the multistate litigation. But Laxalt did not refuse to sue them.
- The second ad claims that Laxalt “tried to stop Reno from holding them accountable.” He urged Reno not to sue, but his letter — written with the state’s consumer advocate — made it clear that all parties had the same goal of holding manufacturers accountable.
Both ads then suggest that Laxalt may have been influenced by the campaign contributions.
- Ad #1: “Maybe it’s because Laxalt took tens of thousands of dollars from opioid manufacturers to fund its campaign.”
- Ad #2: “Maybe it’s because Laxalt took over $20,000 from opioid companies for its campaign.”
The Cortez Masto campaign provided documents showing that Laxalt received $20,500 in campaign contributions between 2014 and 2018 from pharmaceutical companies making opioids, such as Purdue Pharma and Mallinckrodt.
But these contributions undermine the idea that Laxalt did not take action against opioid companies because of campaign money. He sued Perdue Pharma in 2018 after receiving $2,750 in contributions from Perdue between 2014 and 2016. Laxalt did not sue Mallinckrodt – who appears to be the source of the claim in the first announcement that he “refused to sue – although the company was named in the Reno suit.
As for Cortez Masto, during this campaign cycle, it has received tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from pharmaceutical companies, including Mallinckrodt.
“Masto’s ads are designed to mislead voters,” Laxalt campaign spokeswoman Courtney Holland said in a statement. “As Nevada Attorney General, Adam Laxalt aggressively pursued legal action against numerous manufacturers and distributors of opioids, and he prioritized a legal strategy that was most likely to succeed in obtaining justice for the victims of the opioid industry. He did this in addition to appointing the first-ever statewide opioid coordinator and launching the state’s “Prescription for Addiction” opioid program.
Josh Marcus Blank, a campaign spokesman for Cortez Masto, defended the ads. “As Attorney General, Adam Laxalt tried to block the city of Reno from moving forward with its lawsuit against a major opioid manufacturer — an action the mayor described as an “effort to deter the pursuit of the claims by the city” and declared “pitting Nevadans against Nevadans,” he said in a statement. “At the same time, the Laxalt campaign took thousands from that same opioid company. The announcement accurately reflects these facts.
The Cortez Masto campaign tries mightily to connect the dots in sinister fashion. But they don’t add up. The first version of this ad was particularly bad, falsely claiming that Laxalt had refused to sue a particular company. The revamped version, centering on the dispute with the mayor of Reno, erroneously says he didn’t want to hold opioid manufacturers accountable.
This was a dispute over tactics, not Laxalt wanting to give the opioid makers a break. The ads then insinuate — using the crazy word “maybe” — that Laxalt was indebted to drug companies because of campaign contributions. There is no evidence that this is the case, especially since he sued one of these companies.
Viewers’ eyes might fix on a murky debate over whether a multi-state trial or individual trials is the best approach. But that’s the problem here – not overblown accusations that lack evidence. The first ad was worthy of Four Pinocchios, but the second ad just managed to win Three.
Send us facts to check by filling out this form
Sign up for the fact checker weekly newsletter
The fact checker is a verified checker signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network Code of Principles