Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (Dem) under ethics probe over disclosure issues

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Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (Dem) decided to sue JUUL, an E-Cigarette manufacturer. A company called Altria bought a 35% stake in JUUL, and they have been joined as a defendant in the case. There are many such lawsuits across the nation.

Juul and other e-cigarette lawsuits claim vaping led to seizures, serious lung injuries or disease, and strokes. Many vaping lawsuits claim that high nicotine levels in e-cig fluids or Juul pods led to e-cig addiction, possibly worsening the health dangers for people who have used Juul and other electronic cigarettes.

Instead of keeping the suit inhouse, Ellison farmed the case off to local law firms, including Robins Kaplan (the Firm); the representation agreement between the law firm and the state allowed for contingency fees (the firm would get a percent of the settlement) that are expected to be in the hundreds of million dollars range.

An ethics probe has now been opened against Ellison because he allegedly failed to disclose to the legislature that the firm had close connections with Ellison. The issue is compounded by the notion that such arrangements can be viewed as an influence-peddling event—especially when they are not disclosed.

Local media reports that the firm’s “political action committee donated to his run for attorney general as well as his previous congressional campaigns, according to state and federal campaign finance records reviewed by 5 Investigates. 

Ellison also did not tell lawmakers that a partner at the firm, Richard Allyn, led Ellison’s transition team after he won the election in November 2018.” 

Ellison has claimed that outside representation is necessary owing to the complexities of the lawsuit. But Minnesota is one of only two states relying on outside legal help in the fight against the company and the only state willing to give up a percentage of any settlement or damages, KSTP.com reports.

Two-time Chief Judge of the Hennepin County District Court Kevin Burke surmised that the decision to hand off the case to a private law firm makes perfect sense.”I personally don’t see it as a major problem,” Burke said. “The first question people would ask is, ‘why don’t they just do it in the house?’ And the answer is, they really would not be capable of dealing with this.”

We agree with Burke that the decision to give the case to a private firm makes sense; the issue of disclosure of Ellison’s ties with the private law firm, although a separate issue, appears De Minimis. The firm’s past and the current personal relationship likely provided Ellison with a unique and useful analysis of its capabilities. Although he apparently failed to disclose his ties with the firm, his failure to do so was likely unintentional, and there was some disclosure.

We give Ellison a pass on this one.

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