- Associated Press - Friday, September 18, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The U.S. attorney’s office in Nebraska says it can’t determine whether state officials violated federal law in their efforts to obtain lethal injection drugs, so prosecutors have forwarded key documents to a watchdog agency for further review, according to a letter released Friday.

Prosecutors examined the documents last month at the request of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, which accused Gov. Pete Ricketts and state officials of trying to import the foreign-made drugs illegally.

In an Aug. 25 letter to the ACLU of Nebraska, U.S. Attorney Deborah Gilg said her office sent the documents to the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of the Inspector General and will decide whether to take action based on that agency’s report.

“We are unable to determine from the materials whether or not any federal criminal or civil statutes are implicated,” Gilg said.

Nebraska currently has no way to execute inmates because it lacks two of the three required lethal injection drugs for its protocol.

The state paid $54,400 in May for drugs from Harris Pharma, a distributor in India, but the FDA has said Nebraska can’t legally import them. An attempt to ship them to the United States via FedEx was thwarted late last month because the delivery service company said the drugs didn’t have proper paperwork for international transport.

Ricketts has said state officials are working with the Drug Enforcement Administration to import the required drugs - sodium thiopental and pancuronium bromide - so Nebraska can resume executions. He also has argued that the review sought by the ACLU of Nebraska was politically motivated because the group opposes the death penalty.

Lawmakers abolished the death penalty in May, overriding Ricketts’ veto, but supporters of the punishment launched a petition drive to suspend the repeal until voters decide the issue in November 2016. On Thursday, death penalty opponents filed a lawsuit arguing the petition drive was invalid.

Danielle Conrad, executive director of ACLU of Nebraska, said she was pleased that the U.S. attorney’s office took the matter seriously.

“The FDA and the U.S. attorney’s office should give this matter their full attention to assure Nebraskans that their tax dollars aren’t being used to violate the law,” Conrad said.

Jan Sharp, the criminal division chief for the U.S. attorney’s office in Omaha, said he reviewed the documents and concluded that it was best for the FDA to examine them. He said his office will stay in contact with the agency, but he didn’t know how long the review will take.

“It’s an unusual situation,” Sharp said.

The DEA has said Nebraska is legally registered to import drugs, but can be blocked from doing so if other federal agencies object. In a July 13 letter to Nebraska corrections director Scott Frakes, a DEA administrator said the FDA raised legal concerns about the state’s efforts.

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