“As Nevada’s attorney general, Adam Laxalt refused to sue an opioid company that dumped 400 million pills onto our streets. Maybe that’s because Laxalt took tens of thousands of dollars from opioid manufacturers to fund his campaign. Adam Laxalt took their money and turned his back on Nevada.”
“When the city of Reno wanted to go after the opioid manufacturers for the damage they’ve caused, Nevada’s attorney general, Adam Laxalt, tried to block Reno from holding them accountable. Maybe that’s because Laxalt took over $20,000 from opioid companies for his campaign.”
— Cortez Masto ad, released Aug. 13
The Senate race between incumbent Cortez Masto and her Republican opponent, Adam Laxalt, is one of the closest in the nation.
Nevada was one of the states most affected by the opioid crisis. In an attack ad, Cortez Masto has accused Laxalt of refusing to sue opioid manufacturers when he was attorney general. The ad darkly suggests that Laxalt’s stance was influenced by campaign contributions.
This is 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 that more precisely targeted the critique. This new ad removed the accusation that he refused to sue a particular company but instead said he tried to block Reno from filing a suit against manufacturers.
Let’s unpack this.
Laxalt, a son of Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and grandson of governor and Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), was the state’s attorney general from 2015 to 2019.
In 2016, Nevada was ranked sixth among states for the number of milligrams of opioids distributed per adult, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. In June 2017, Laxalt announced that he was working with a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general to evaluate whether manufacturers had engaged in unlawful practices in the marketing and sale of opioids.
Such multistate investigations are often undertaken when a nationwide crisis leads to litigation. States pool their investigative resources and negotiate settlements directly with manufacturers or other parties accused of wrongdoing. When Cortez Masto was Nevada’s attorney general, she was involved in a similar action against the five biggest mortgage servicers who were accused of harming homeowners during the Great Recession. During her run for the Senate, she touted her role in forging that agreement.
The Cortez Masto ads hinge on a dispute that Laxalt’s office had with Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve in November 2017. Shortly after Laxalt announced that he was running for governor, Schieve said the city wanted to file its own lawsuit against opioid manufacturers. (The 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 governor’s race.)
The city of Reno referred questions to Laxalt, and Schieve did not respond to a query. From our review of news clips 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 twist it into a nefarious scheme to protect opioid manufacturers.
Indeed, Laxalt’s letter to Schieve urging her to hold off filing the suit 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 followed Laxalt as attorney general.
The Laxalt-Figueroa letter said that “your initiative is a credit to all Nevadans” and that “we share the same goals.” But it called for a “united front” in battling the opioid crisis. In particular, the letter expressed concern that a separate Reno lawsuit could “undermine Nevada’s position in the multistate investigation our office has been actively participating in for over a year.”
“We thought the multistate process was the better vehicle,” the former Nevada attorney general aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the issue has become politically charged. He added that a separate lawsuit was “uncharted territory” and that “we thought we could get kicked out of the multistate process.”
Schieve shot back with her own letter, saying her lawsuit would not affect the multistate settlement. “While I understand, and can certainly appreciate, your concerns about how a City lawsuit could impact that collective investigation, please know that I have grave concerns over the dramatic impact that opioids have on our city, from the exorbitant amounts of stress that 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 her own lawsuit 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 position in the multistate process. “When we didn’t get kicked out of it, we were fine with the suit,” the former aide said.
Not to get too far in the weeds, but when Ford became Nevada attorney general, his office joined the Reno suit and pulled out of the $26 billion multistate litigation, only to later rejoin it. Under a 2021 agreement, the state shares the settlement payments with 29 local government entities.
Ford, when he was Senate majority leader, helped to pass an amendment in the waning hours of the 2017 legislative session that removed a set of caps on fees recoverable by outside law firms that enter into “contingent fee” contracts with the state. He worked at the time for a law firm of trial lawyers, Eglet Adams, which had contracted with municipalities such as Reno to sue opioid manufacturers. (Trial lawyers, of course, are among the biggest backers of Democrats.)
In other words, tactics and politics played a big role in the dispute over the best way to litigate against opioid manufacturers. There was not necessarily a right or wrong approach, and eventually the state merged both. It’s worth noting 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, look at how these ads frame this arcane disagreement:
- The first ad claims that Laxalt “refused to sue an opioid company that dumped 400 million pills onto our streets.” This flimsy claim is based on the fact that one 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 asserts that Laxalt “tried to block Reno from holding them accountable.” He did urge Reno not to file a lawsuit, but his letter — written with the state’s consumer advocate — made clear that all sides had the same goal of holding the manufacturers accountable.
Both ads then suggest Laxalt may have been influenced by campaign contributions.
- Ad #1: “Maybe that’s because Laxalt took tens of thousands of dollars from opioid manufacturers to fund his campaign.”
- Ad #2: “Maybe that’s because Laxalt took over $20,000 from opioid companies for his campaign.”
The Cortez Masto campaign provided documentation showing that Laxalt received $20,500 in campaign contributions between 2014 and 2018 from pharmaceutical companies that manufactured opioids, such as Purdue Pharma and Mallinckrodt.
But those contributions undermine the idea that Laxalt did not take action against opioid companies because of campaign cash. He sued Perdue Pharma in 2018 after receiving $2,750 in contributions from Perdue between 2014 and 2016. Laxalt did not sue Mallinckrodt — which appears to be the source of the claim in the first ad that he “refused to sue” — though the company was named in the Reno suit.
As for Cortez Masto, during this campaign cycle, she has received tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from pharmaceutical companies — including Mallinckrodt.
“Masto’s ads are designed to deceive voters,” Laxalt campaign spokesman Courtney Holland said in a statement. “As Nevada Attorney General, Adam Laxalt took aggressive legal action against many opioids manufacturers and distributors, and he prioritized a legal strategy that was most likely to succeed in securing justice for the victims of the opioid industry. He did this in addition to appointing the state’s first ever statewide opioid coordinator, and starting the state’s ‘Prescription for Addiction’ opioid program.”
Josh Marcus Blank, a Cortez Masto campaign spokesman, 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 pursuit of claims by the City’ and said was ‘pitting Nevadans against Nevadans,’ ” he said in a statement. “At the same time, Laxalt’s campaign took thousands from that same opioid company. The ad accurately reflects these facts.”
The Pinocchio Test
The Cortez Masto campaign is straining mightily to connect dots in a sinister way. But they don’t add up. The first version of this ad was especially bad, falsely claiming that Laxalt refused to sue a particular company. The retooled version, focused on the dispute with the Reno mayor, falsely says he did not want to hold opioid manufacturers accountable.
This was a dispute over tactics, not Laxalt wanting to give opioid manufacturers a break. The ads then insinuate — using the weaselly word “maybe” — that Laxalt was beholden to pharmaceutical companies because of campaign contributions. There’s no evidence that is the case, especially since he sued one of those companies.
Viewers’ eyes might glaze over an arcane debate about whether a multistate lawsuit or individual lawsuits is the best approach. But that’s the issue here — not hyped-up charges that lack evidence. The first ad was worthy of Four Pinocchios, but the second ad just managed to earn Three.
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