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Attorney General Tong Launches Editorial Board Circuit At The Bee

Published: July 12, 2019 at 07:10 am

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The publisher, along with several reporters and editors, welcomed Attorney General William Tong to The Newtown Bee, July 8, as the top state law enforcement official commenced the first circuit of editorial board meetings since he took office in early January.

After a boisterous greeting from the office canine contingent and a brief meeting with Publisher Scudder Smith, the AG spent approximately an hour talking with editorial staff members.

The Q&A session covered a range of subjects, from Mr Tong’s efforts to end generic drug price fixing, Perdue Pharma’s role in the nationwide opioid epidemic, and the revamping of his office’s consumer assistance unit to his opposition to using federal defense funds to build a border wall and his defense of and plans to assess and possibly strengthen the state’s already stringent gun laws.

According to his biography, Mr Tong is the 25th Attorney General to serve since the statewide office was established in 1897. He took office on January 9, 2019, as the first Asian American elected at the statewide level in Connecticut.

Before his election as Attorney General, Mr Tong served for 12 years in Connecticut’s General Assembly, representing the 147th District, which includes North Stamford and Darien. Most recently, he served as House Chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

In that position, Rep Tong was responsible for all legislation related to constitutional law, criminal law, civil rights, consumer protection, probate, judicial nominations and the Judicial branch, and major areas of substantive law.

During his service in the legislature, Rep Tong helped lead passage of landmark legislation, including the Connecticut Second Chance Act, Domestic Violence Restraining Order Act, Lost and Stolen Firearms Act, the Act Protecting Homeowner Rights, and the Act Protecting Schoolchildren.

A Connecticut native, Mr Tong grew up in the Hartford area and attended schools in West Hartford, graduated from Phillips Academy Andover, Brown University, and the University of Chicago Law School.

He has practiced law for the last 18 years as a litigator in both state and federal courts, first at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP in New York City and for the past 15 years at Finn Dixon & Herling LLP in Stamford.

Mr Tong is the oldest of five children and grew up working side-by-side with his immigrant parents in their family’s Chinese restaurant. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Stamford with their three children and “too many pets.”

Generic Drug Price Fixing

One of the first topics of conversation with The Newtown Bee’s editorial staff involved his role in the generic drug price fixing controversy.

In May, the AG’s office announced a lawsuit against Teva Pharmaceuticals and 19 of the nation’s largest generic drug manufacturers, alleging a broad conspiracy to artificially inflate and manipulate prices, reduce competition, and unreasonably restrain trade for more than 100 different generic drugs.

The complaint was the second to be filed in an ongoing, expanding investigation that the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General has referred to as possibly the largest cartel case in the history of the United States.

He said his predecessor, AG George Jepsen, filed the state’s first complaint against Heritage Pharmaceuticals, “although almost every major [generic drug] manufacturer was named in that complaint. We amended that complaint and filed a second one in May against Teva Pharmaceuticals,” which AG Tong said is the largest global generics manufacturer, tallying about $100 billion in annual sales.

“That’s 90 percent of all prescriptions,” the AG said. Court documents were recently unsealed and obtained by AG Tong’s office, revealing “the depth of this conspiracy and how far it goes.”

“What you see is how executives at Teva ranked their competitors based on how cooperative they were with price increases, price fixing, splitting up market share, and assigning customers to each other,” he added. “This conduct in the law is known as ‘illegal per se’; just the fact of doing it is illegal, regardless of whatever reason you may state for doing it. You even read how they referred to [their industry collaborators] not as competition, but as ‘co-opetition’. And they did this in writing.”

AG Tong said he was pleased to be part of a 49-state coalition fighting to eliminate future opportunities for company executives to price fix generic drugs.

“They break the law as long as they can afford to do so,” he said. “But this time, we hope to not only obtain a monetary award, but injunctive relief that spells out what they will and will not do going forward. Hopefully the [US] Department of Justice will take a hard look at this and decide that maybe this time some people should go to jail. These are not boutique drugs for rare conditions; these are everyday drugs that millions of people take.”

Perdue Pharma

The attorney general then responded to a question posed by a Bee staff member about the role and responsibility Connecticut-based Perdue Pharma has related to the nationwide opioid epidemic. Specifically, should Perdue Pharma file for bankruptcy, and would such a move then shield company executives and board members from liability?

“I don’t think Perdue Pharma should file bankruptcy,” AG Tong quickly responded, “because I don’t think they are bankrupt. I think Perdue Pharma should pay for the damage it has caused, more than $10 billion a year to Connecticut families, and more than 1,000 lives lost just last year. If the company ran into court tomorrow and claimed to be bankrupt, I’d fight it because they have the money.”

He said Connecticut is more unique in its action against Perdue because the AG’s office is focused on following the money.

“In 2007, Perdue Pharma plead guilty to criminal charges for deceptive marketing, so they knew then they were in trouble,” AG Tong said. “So it was highly improper — if not illegal — to pull billions of dollars out of the company after 2007 to try and hide those assets and shield them from your creditors and from [accounting for them as potential] damages.”

In regard to exposure to the Sackler family and Perdue Pharma’s officers, directors, and shareholders, AG Tong said theoretically a bankruptcy filing by the company should have no effect.

“But they haven’t filed bankruptcy, so I don’t know what that looks like,” he said. “A fair question [would be], should Perdue Pharma be put out of business? And I don’t think this company as it’s currently composed, this board, or the Sacklers should ever touch an opioid product again.”

AG Tong said one of the sad outcomes of the opioid epidemic is the backlash on patients who require legitimate chronic pain relief.

“There’s a community of people who are now suffering because, in their opinion, they are being under-prescribed pain medication because of the reaction to the over prescription of pain medication,” he said. “These people are loosely organized as ‘don’t punish pain’ advocates. There is a role for heavy pain relief; it’s how we manage that that’s important.”

Consumer Assistance

AG Tong then pivoted to internal matters in his office, namely the restructuring of his consumer assistance unit. He said the Connecticut AG’s Office has long maintained a group of staffers to field calls from consumers.

“I think it’s really important to continuing to focus on that effort, and I think we need more people to do it,” he said. “Over the years, people have developed software to track and administer consumer complaints, which may lead to us taking larger action against a wrongdoer, and perhaps eventually enacting a legislation proposal to protect people. From a government services standpoint, it’s kind of nerdy, but it’s important, and it’s my job.”

In the case of state AG action against Safe Home Security Inc, a company that installed shoddy alarm systems and then disallowed customers’ refunds and refused to release them from their contracts, once AG Tong’s office issued a consumer advisory about the company, people from states across the country have flooded AG Tong’s office with calls and complaints regarding similar practices by the company.

“We have Senior Corps members helping us staff our Consumer Assistance Unit,” the attorney general said. “I see this as our core mission and an essential function. Who has the money to hire a lawyer, or the time to go after a company like Safe Home? There are a lot of great businesses out there that employ thousands of people... but there are also powerful [corporate] forces squeezing Connecticut families. So it’s essential for our 200 lawyers and 315 total staff members to push back.”

Fighting The Fed

AG Tong said the “total breakdown of a productive federal government” has created situations where state attorneys general and their respective staffs are, more than ever, pushed to the front lines of battle against their own national administration.

“We’re a plaintiff in the case against using federal funds to build a border wall, and we’re a plaintiff in the census [residency question] case,” he said. “We took on these cases not because it’s about Donald Trump, but because these issues have a direct impact on the people of this state, the funding we rely on for homeland security, and a host of other programs.”

AG Tong said he is opposed to the president taking funds under an executive declaration that Connecticut needs for military construction and drug interdiction from local and state police programs and national security work in Connecticut.

“Congress said you can’t build a wall, and [Trump] said I’m going to do it anyway. That’s just not unlawful, that’s a constitutional crisis,” AG Tong said. “At the end of the day, our system depends on presidents listening to Congress, Congress doing its constitutionally appointed job of passing laws, courts enforcing those laws. Congress can’t send a police force over to force the president to do or not do something.”

In regard to the census question, AG Tong said, “The US Supreme Court’s recent decision was pretty clear: you can’t put a citizenship question on the census, and it looks like he’s not going to listen to the Supreme Court.”

‘The Connecticut Effect’

When asked how much further Connecticut could go to regulate firearms and promote gun safety, the attorney general said Connecticut has accomplished so much and stands as an example to all states and the federal government “because of what happened in this community,” referring to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting of 2012.

“We’ve done a lot, and what we call the Connecticut Effect continues,” AG Tong said. “We’re seeing other places experiencing great tragedy with great frequency — Parkland, Las Vegas, and urban communities across the country every day.”

Bee Editor Nancy Crevier asked AG Tong if he thought an attitude change was occurring after a federal ban on assault weapons was not renewed after it recently lapsed.

“I think this is what confounds everybody,” he replied. “No state has been spared the experience of horrific tragedies. Not just shootings, but mass shootings. And some of the worst are happening in red states. It seems we’ve gone the wrong way in terms of these tragedies. And I don’t think there’s been enough action in some of those states, so it does make us feel like we’re on an island sometimes. We’re proud to be a leader, but why isn’t everybody else doing the same thing?”

AG Tong said there is a gun culture and blames the National Rifle Association from cultivating an attitude that the right to gun ownership of any kind is “an absolute freedom, it says a lot about who you are and what side you’re on, and it has a lot to do with power, and it’s all been contorted and perverted to sell guns, or maybe to solicit NRA membership dues.”

Currently, AG Tong said office is working on possibly further enhancing safe storage laws, and he believes his office will engage in the future over responsible ownership, the debate over access to assault style weapons for consumer use, and 3D guns and availability of plans to create them.

The Last Word

AG Tong wrapped up his visit to The Newtown Bee by responding to a constituent question about the role the AG’s office plays in helping develop and enforce state regulations that are sometimes viewed as being less than business friendly or unproductive when it comes to the state’s efforts to attract and retain business.

“Of course it’s my job and I enthusiastically embrace the part of my job that helps grow our economy while supporting the business community here in Connecticut,” he said. “It’s not anti-business to enforce the law or protect consumers from fraud. I’d be surprised to find one business person who would tell me to not enforce the law or protect consumers who have been cheated.”

AG Tong said he has heard talk of the AG’s office being anti-business before he stepped into its leadership role. But he argued that as soon as one member of a particular business community begins to adopt illegal practices to advantage themselves over their peers, the rest or many of those similar businesses come forward looking for the AG to step in with enforcement actions.

“It’s so specious as to be offensive that the AG’s office should just lay off and let people do what they want to one another,” he said. “If people get ripped off, we should step in to protect them. And there’s a way to do this respectfully and thoughtfully. I’m not just going to wade in when a complaint is made and fire off subpoenas.”

AG Tong said he is currently working on a case against Juul, the vaping paraphernalia manufacturer, which he believes is targeting marketing toward underage consumers; and he is joining with other state attorneys general to push Congress to pass a law that he hopes will have some impact on reducing robocalls that are plaguing home and mobile phone consumers.

“We’re engaged in a multi-state effort to pass a law that will promote lots of state and federal law enforcement coordination and funding, along with encouraging the development of technology to screen and block such calls,” he said. “The hard thing is, we’re trying to keep up with criminals who are one or two steps ahead.”

AG Tong confessed that even a close family member has fallen victim to a telephone-based scam.

“The trouble is, the perpetrators are very hard to find,” he said, “and if they are in another country, good luck.”

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