- Associated Press - Monday, June 26, 2017

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - A lawyer for one of the country’s largest manufacturers of prescription painkillers says the public has “no right of access” to the testimony of its former president about how the company marketed the dangerously addictive OxyContin.

The Kentucky attorney general’s office sued Purdue Pharma in 2007, accusing it of misleading the public about just how addictive the opioid-based painkiller really was. They said that helped fuel a wave of addiction in Appalachia and beyond that cost the state millions of dollars in health care costs and incalculable amounts of suffering.

Former Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway settled the case in 2015 for $24 million with an agreement to keep some court documents hidden from public view. They included a deposition from Richard Sackler, a former Purdue Pharma president and member of the family that still controls the company. His testimony could offer important insights into how much the company knew about the drug’s addictive qualities.

STAT, a national health publication owned by Boston Globe Media, asked a judge to release the records anyway. Last year, Pike Circuit Court Judge Steven Combs unsealed the documents saying there was “no higher value” than for the public “to see the facts for themselves.”

But attorneys for Purdue Pharma appealed the decision, keeping the documents secret until the case is resolved.

Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear has taken no position on the case. Before taking office, Beshear worked for a Lexington law firm that represented Purdue Pharma. The case was settled before he took office.

Monday, Purdue Pharma attorney Daniel Danford argued the documents were not a public record because the judge never relied on it to make a ruling. He said the deposition was never entered into evidence, attached as an exhibit or given to the court to make a ruling. And both sides agreed to seal them.

“The public has no right of access to it whatsoever,” he said.

STAT attorney Jon Fleischaker said the trial judge has the power to seal and unseal records, regardless of what the attorneys involve agree to. He said since the lower court agreed to unseal the records, it would be improper to overrule it.

“We’re dealing with public funds, public offices and the public trust in the judicial system. That cannot be controlled by two private attorneys,” Fleischaker said.

A three-judge panel heard the case, with presiding Judge Glenn Acree asking all of the questions.

“Isn’t there some need for the fourth estate to come in and take a look … to do the oversight that it is obligated to do, to make sure the settlement was an appropriate one, that the agency did the appropriate thing on behalf of the people of the commonwealth? That’s the only purpose it serves,” he said.

Danford said the “right of access” is meant for the public and the press to monitor the court in cases where the government is accused of wrongdoing, including misspending of taxpayer money. He said that does not apply in this case.

Fleischaker said the case involves “records relating to a criminal enterprise” that has caused countless “expenditure of dollars, medical funds and heartache to the citizens of Kentucky and to the nation as a whole.”

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This story has been updated to clarify STAT is owned by Boston Globe Media

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