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Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune 

An icy wind whips snow off the roof of the Sunrise Shopping Center on Thursday. The temperature in Casper hit minus 20 on Thursday morning, with a wind chill of minus 34.


Casper
breaking
City of Casper sues opioid drugmakers alleging companies misled public

The City of Casper has filed a federal lawsuit against more than 15 opioid manufacturers and distributors across the country, alleging the drug companies misrepresented the addictive properties of their prescription painkillers, the city announced Thursday.

“We know that we’ve had many citizens in our community who have become addicted to these medications and the drug companies have some responsibility for that,” Mayor Charlie Powell said Thursday. “... This is about seeking compensation, but also about trying to change these practices so something like this doesn’t happen again in the future.”

The lawsuit seeks millions of dollars in total damages to pay for costs of care for Casper’s residents as well as to recover the city’s costs for responding to the opioid epidemic, according to a press release from the city manager’s office.

The release states that these opioid lawsuits are being consolidated before Judge Dan Polster in U.S. District Court in Cleveland for workup and discovery. Once completed, Casper will then have the opportunity to have its case decided in Wyoming.

Powell said Wednesday that the city’s leaders decided to take action during a recent executive session.

“We’ve had many young people die prematurely as a result (of these drugs),” he said. “Any member of the community should be concerned.”

Jason Ochs, a Jackson attorney who filed the suit for the city, said he’d kept city leaders informed on a similar suit filed by Carbon County last spring.

“I think it was just a matter of the council members and the city attorney … coming to the conclusion that this decision made sense for the city of Casper,” he told the Star-Tribune on Thursday, “that they wanted to declare and commit that they wanted to stop this from being any more of an epidemic in our city than it already is.”

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court earlier this week by Ochs, names more than a dozen defendants. They include OxyContin maker and opioid giant Purdue Pharma; Cephalon Inc., which produces opioids; Teva Ltd., which — according to the suit — works with Cephalon to “market and sell Cephalon products” as well as making and selling its own products; Janssen Pharmaceuticals, which produces opioids including duragesic, or fentanyl; Endo Health Solutions, which sells opioids like Percocet; and Allergan and Watson Laboratories, which are both linked to Actavis, another defendant who makes opioids.

Also named as defendants are Walgreens and Walmart, which both have sold prescription opioids.

“They’ve had the same responsibility to notify the distributors, the big distributors ... of any suspicious activity or requests and/or prescriptions and/or an unusual amount that was coming from one doctor,” Ochs said. “There were lines of defense put into place that we contend were not being followed by these various companies.”

In a statement, Purdue said it shared the city’s concerns about the opioid crisis and would work collaboratively with Casper and the state of Wyoming to bring forward meaningful solutions.

However, the company said it vigorously denied the city’s allegations and looked forward to the opportunity to defend itself.

“The city claims Purdue acted improperly by communicating with prescribers about scientific and medical information that FDA has expressly considered and continues to approve,” the company said in a statement. “We believe it is inappropriate for the city to substitute its judgment for the judgment of the regulatory, scientific and medical experts at FDA.”

Two-pronged lawsuit

Casper’s lawsuit is similar to the one filed by Ochs on behalf of Carbon County and to suits filed by hundreds of counties and municipalities across the country in that it takes broad aim at both the manufacturers of opioids — like Purdue — for allegedly using deceptive marketing and other means to sell the medications and the distributors, which allegedly ignored the lines of defense Ochs described.

“This suit takes aim at the two primary causes of the opioid crisis: (a) a marketing scheme involving the false and deceptive marketing of prescription opioids, which was designed to dramatically increase the demand for and sale of opioids and opioids prescriptions,” the city’s attorneys wrote in the nearly 200-page long lawsuit, “and (b) a supply chain scheme, pursuant to which the various entities in the supply chain failed to design and operate systems to identify suspicious orders of prescription drugs, maintain effective controls against diversion, and halt suspicious orders when they were identified.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there were 17,029 overdose deaths that involved opioids in 2017, a jump from 3,442 in 1999. Overdose deaths involving heroin — considered a cheaper replacement for opioids for addicts — jumped from 1,960 in 1999 to 15,482 in 2017.

Among other things, the lawsuit alleges the pharmaceutical companies worked to introduce opioids into the mainstream of medicine. “In 2015, Wyoming providers wrote 65.3 opioid prescriptions per 100 persons,” according to the suit, which cites the drug abuse institute as its source.

“The increases in opioid deaths and treatments are directly (tied) to the prescribing practices created by Defendants,” the suit alleges. “According to the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), opioid deaths and treatment admissions are tied to opioid sales.”

The suit also charges that Purdue and the other opioid manufacturer defendants “spread false or misleading information about the safety of opioids,” referring to each companies’ marketing efforts as a “scheme.” These “schemes” allegedly included making “false and misleading claims,” according to the suit, that included “downplay(ing) the serious risk of addiction” and “den(ying) the risks of higher dosages,” among several others.

The lawsuit also claims that the opioid manufacturers paid doctors who later spoke in favor of prescribing opioids. One — Dr. Russell Portenoy, who for years led the charge in efforts to prescribe opioids to pain patients — later acknowledged that “innumerable lectures” he gave about the drugs “weren’t true.” Those lectures, according to the lawsuit, included claims that “fewer than 1 percent of patients would become addicted to opioids.”

The suit claims that the practices of the defendants ultimately negatively affected Casper and continues to harm the city.

“Each Distributor Defendant knew or should have known that the opioids reaching the CITY OF CASPER were not being consumed for medical purposes,” the suit alleges, “and that the amount of opioids flowing to the CITY OF CASPER was far in excess of what could be consumed for medically necessary purposes.”

Casper joins a growing list

The city is the latest Wyoming entity to sue major opioid manufacturers. Before Carbon County filed its suit last spring, the Northern Arapaho Tribe announced that it was suing a number of pharmaceutical companies and distributors, including Purdue. Carbon County announced its suit the next month, and in October, the state of Wyoming filed a state lawsuit against Purdue.

Litigation against the pharmaceutical companies, and Purdue in particular, is becoming increasingly common across the United States. Massachusetts recently announced it was joining the fray, while counties in neighboring states, as well as the state of Montana, have taken similar action.

Casper’s suit, in fact, appears in parts to be borrowed from complaints filed in other cases. For example, in the city’s lawsuit, it references a Warren County, Wyoming. No such place exists. Other language from the lawsuit that details the companies’ alleged behavior nationally can be found in similar lawsuits filed by other counties and municipalities.

Ochs said more than 1,500 counties and municipalities have filed opioid-related litigation, a number that he expects to grow. He said there’s a trial set for October in Ohio for counties there that filed litigation, and he — as well as other firms across the country involved in opioid suits — are helping in the buildup.

“Frankly it will define where this litigation is going,” he said. “Will it be an enormous verdict, will it be a defense verdict or somewhere in the middle?”

He said the city’s lawsuit will follow Carbon County’s efforts: It will be consolidated into the sprawling litigation in Ohio for the purposes of per-trial work. Should there ever be a jury trial, however, that case would be tried here in Wyoming.


State-and-regional
breaking
Senate committee chooses Casper as site for state-run veterans home

CHEYENNE — After decision-makers spent months alternating between Casper and Buffalo as the potential site for a state-run veterans facility, Casper has once again secured the recommendation.

“We still have a lot more work to do,” Casper City Manager Carter Napier said Thursday. “We have to watch it go through the Senate discussion and then the conference committee. This is just one more stop along the route.”

City and county officials made their case for the Oil City last Wednesday, and a Senate committee decided Casper would be the best site for a skilled nursing facility for Wyoming’s veterans.

Back in December, the Wyoming Legislature received a bill with plans, based on several years of study, to build the facility in Buffalo near an existing assisted living facility for veterans in the shadow of the Big Horn Mountains.

Hearing new evidence the following month, the location was switched to Casper, where there is a larger workforce and a larger hospital, only for the location to be switched back to Buffalo on the House floor with an 11th-hour amendment before passing on to the Senate.

Being heard for the first time by the Senate Committee on Transportation, Highways & Military Affairs on Wednesday evening, the location was switched again: back to Casper.

The acute care facility has evolved into something of a political football this legislative session. Kicked off with a study for a new veteran-centered acute care facility initiated in the 2018 budget session, the legislature has wrestled with the merits of three separate communities — Buffalo, Sheridan and Casper — in deciding the best location for the home.

Buffalo, which has been the site of the Veterans’ Home of Wyoming since 1903, has argued for the project as an economic development project and also as a way to ensure continuity of care for the state’s aging veterans.

Johnson County Commissioner Bill Novotny — joined by Johnson County Sen. Dave Kinskey and Rep. Richard Tass — presented a letter to members of the committee Wednesday night signed by 46 of the 79 residents currently at the home supporting building the nursing facility, arguing that the construction and staffing of a new facility somewhere else in the state will only create an undue burden on the state’s general fund.

Those who testified noted that Johnson County also has been working to build up its educational offerings for certified nursing assistants and has other communities to draw from — including Sheridan and Gillette — to build up a sufficient workforce by the time the facility completes construction in 2-3 years.

Buffalo, however, has its downsides, as numerous officials and citizens from Natrona County pointed out during the hearing. Charles Walsh, the president and CEO of the Casper Area Economic Development Alliance, argued that the economic development benefits would be negligible. Yes, he said, the construction of the actual facility would create temporary construction jobs, but those would likely be filled by firms from outside Buffalo if built there. Casper, meanwhile, has the construction firms to build the facility right in town.

Most of the permanent jobs created by the project, he added, will be occupied by certified nursing assistants, who barely make a livable wage. The facility would need 30 of them on staff. Casper, he said, has the private sector able to support this, while Buffalo does not.

This point was driven home by another representative from Casper, who read from a letter signed by eight medical professionals from Buffalo, testifying that Buffalo was specifically unequipped to provide the level of skilled staff or the resources to provide ease of care. Casper, meanwhile, had a site to build the facility located several hundred yards from the emergency department of one of the state’s largest hospitals.

“This is not an economic development exercise — it’s a discussion on how to selflessly serve our veterans the way they selflessly served this country,” said Rob Hendry, chairman of the Natrona County Commission.

Several disabled veterans from Casper, including Josh Wheeler and Walsh’s wife, Mary Jane, testified to what was most important to them in a care facility with one theme: that the veterans should be the focus in this process.

From finding a central location close to an airport for families to have easier access to their loved ones to a facility’s proximity to medical facilities like a dentist and dialysis to the infrastructure in a community, including things like easy access to amenities like Uber, the details matter, Walsh said.

And they could all be found in Casper.

“Us veterans deserve the best,” Wheeler said. “We stand before you today to respectfully request you give us the best by placing this facility in Casper.”

Staff writer Katie King contributed to this report.


Energy
Landowner group sues Wyoming for withholding information on coal permits

A northern Wyoming landowners’ group is suing the state for declining to prove that $27 million in ranchland used as collateral for a coal mine’s cleanup is really worth that much money.

The dispute concerns Blackjewel LLC, a relative newcomer to Wyoming coal country. The firm announced that it had acquired Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines from Contura Energy in December 2017, but in order to take full operation of those mines, the newer firm has to provide financial assurances — insurance or property that can be used to cover the cost of mine cleanup in Wyoming should the coal company go under.

To date that permit transfer has not taken place, but the bonds have been proposed. They are the same as the last coal company’s bonds.

Of the $247 million in cleanup liability at the two mines, $26.7 million is covered by real property: 20,000 acres of Campbell County ranchland owned by Contura. The Powder River Basin Resource Council is arguing that a 20,000-acre ranch in northern Wyoming isn’t worth that much cash.

The Sheridan-based group filed a public records request in October with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality — which had approved that the land be used as collateral — asking the agency to prove the property was valued at that amount. The state declined at the time, saying that the coal firm had requested its appraisal information be kept private.

Now the landowners’ group, which has been critical of Blackjewel’s reputation for environmental failings in its past dealings in Appalachia, is suing the state for denying its public records request.

The Department of Environmental Quality deferred comment on the suit to the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office. The AG, Peter Michael, declined to comment.

“I must confess that this case has not come to my attention,” Michael wrote in an email, adding that the office rarely comments on litigation, particularly this early in the process.

***

The land involved is actually two separate properties. Together, they account for about 22 percent of the bonding obligation for the Belle Ayr mine, an operation that lies about halfway between Wright and Gillette on the east side of Highway 59.

The Powder River Basin Resource Council voiced its members’ doubts about the land value when Contura Energy applied for a permit renewal for the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines last year.

The mines had been acquired by Blackjewel LLC, but the permits still belonged to Contura, as is still the case today. Blackjewel is the owner and operator of the mines, but the permits are still held by the older firm.

Compared to other ranches in northern Wyoming, the landowner group argued, a $27 million property appeared unlikely.

The group asked DEQ, in a public records request in October, for documentation from the coal company — Blackjewel — proving the land was worth $27 million. The department refused.

“Blackjewel has requested that the appraisal be confidential,” the agency wrote in response, according to records included with the lawsuit.

***

Contura was an offshoot of the Alpha Natural Resources bankruptcy, formed in 2016 in order to take over Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr. Like most of the big coal players in Wyoming at the time, Alpha had some of its bonding covered by self-bonds — promises of eventual reclamation based on the financial health of the company. Post insolvency, firms like Alpha (and new firms like Contura) didn’t qualify for self-bonds.

Contura Energy’s bonds were approved in 2017, around the same time that the company replaced $71 million in personal property collateral bonds with sureties. The move pleased environmental groups that viewed some bond instruments as riskier than others.

The ranch property was also approved by the state at that time.

When Contura then unloaded the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines to the newcomer from Appalachia, Blackjewel LLC, the land used as collateral was meant to go with the sale, performing the same bonding role for Blackjewel as it had for Contura.

But Blackjewel has been slow to move through the paperwork necessary to get Wyoming’s DEQ to allow Contura’s permits to transfer to Blackjewel. It was delayed in obtaining the leases for Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr by a history of environmental concerns in other states. The company finally applied to transfer permits from Contura in November, nearly a year after acquiring the mines.

The landowers’ group argued in a press release that transparency on the land value was critical because Contura, and now Blackjewel, has set a precedent as the first coal firm to use real estate bonds against cleanup costs.

“This is a complicated situation with both the mine permit renewal and the same permit’s proposed transfer to a different company,” said Resource Council Chairwoman Joyce Evans in a statement. “We need to make sure the federal and state laws are being followed before allowing these actions to be finalized.”


Washington
AP
Trump-GOP meeting boosts optimism about border deal

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump appears to be taking a more positive view of Capitol Hill talks on border security, according to negotiators who struck a distinctly optimistic tone after a White House meeting with a top Republican on the broad parameters of a potential bipartisan agreement.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby of Alabama said Thursday’s session in the Oval Office was “the most positive meeting I’ve had in a long time” and that the president was “very reasonable.”

Down Pennsylvania Avenue at the Capitol, the mood among negotiators was distinctly upbeat, with participants in the talks between the Democratic-controlled House and GOP-held Senate predicting a deal could come as early as this weekend.

There’s a Feb. 15 deadline to enact the measure or a stopgap spending bill to avert another partial government shutdown, which neither side wants to reprise. Republicans are especially eager to avoid another shutdown after they got scalded by the last one.

Trump had previously called the talks a “waste of time,” and he’s threatened to declare a national emergency to bypass Congress and build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. But Shelby said Trump during their meeting “urged me to get to yes” on an agreement.

Publicly on Thursday Trump took a wait-and-see approach.

“I certainly hear that they are working on something and both sides are moving along,” Trump said. “We’ll see what happens. We need border security. We have to have it, it’s not an option. Let’s see what happens.”

The White House is committed to letting the negotiations play out, with some saying they are “cautiously optimistic” about getting a deal they could live with, said a senior administration official who lacked authorization to publicly discuss internal deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The new openness comes after Trump delivered a well-received State of the Union speech in which he preached the value of bipartisanship.

Despite the newfound optimism, Trump continues to threaten to declare a national emergency to circumvent Congress if lawmakers fail to reach a deal he can stomach.

Still, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., a close ally of Trump, said Thursday that the deal could be a good starting place — suggesting Trump could take additional action if needed to secure more wall funding without congressional approval.

“I would recommend that this will probably be a good down payment and what else is lacking, the delta between what you want and what you get, there are other ways to do it, and I expect the president to go it alone in some fashion,” Graham told reporters.

Shelby said he and Trump didn’t discuss whether Trump still might use an emergency declaration even if there’s a deal, saying: “The president’s got constitutional powers. ... I would think he wouldn’t, but I don’t know what the situation” will be.

Beyond the border security negotiations, the measure is likely to contain seven appropriations bills funding domestic agencies and the foreign aid budget, as well as disaster aid for victims of last year’s hurricanes and western wildfires.

“I’m hopeful,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “I do like the idea of getting all of last year’s work finished, and I hope that’s where it ends up.”

Any move by Trump to fund a border barrier by executive fiat, however, would roil many Republicans on Capitol Hill, raising the likelihood that both House and Senate could pass legislation to reverse him. Trump could veto any such measure, but he’s also certain to face a challenge in the courts.

“If Congress won’t participate or won’t go along, we’ll figure out a way to do it with executive authority,” Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said on Fox News Channel’s “Hannity” on Wednesday.

Mulvaney said that the administration has identified well more than $5.7 billion to transfer to wall construction, saying they would try to avoid legal obstacles.

“Find the money that we can spend with the lowest threat of litigation, and then move from that pot of money to the next pot that maybe brings a little bit more threat of litigation,” Mulvaney said.

It’s clear that Trump won’t get anything close to the $5.7 billion he’s demanded for wall construction, just as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will have to depart from her view that there shouldn’t be any wall funding at all.

Last year, a bipartisan Senate panel approved $1.6 billion for 65 miles of pedestrian fencing in Texas — in line with Trump’s official request. The negotiations aren’t likely to veer very far from that figure, aides involved in the talks said, and newly empowered House Democrats were looking to restrict use of the money.

A key negotiator, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said details on nettlesome border wall issues haven’t been worked out. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., another participant, said both sides are showing flexibility, including Democrats who insisted during the recently-ended 35-day shutdown on no wall funding at all.

“They are not opposed to barriers,” Blunt said about Democrats. “And the president, I think, has embraced the idea that there may actually be something better than a concrete wall would have been anyway.”

Pelosi told reporters Thursday that she was hopeful of an agreement that would “protect our borders as we protect our values.”


Crime-and-courts
breaking
UW football draft prospect Carl Granderson facing sexual assault charge

LARAMIE — Former University of Wyoming football standout Carl Granderson has been charged with sexual assault, according to a university statement.

According to the school, charges of third-degree sexual assault and sexual battery were filed against Granderson this week in Albany County Circuit Court stemming from an off-campus incident that occurred after the season.

In response to public records requests seeking files on the case, the Star-Tribune was informed by circuit court clerks as well as the Albany County Attorney’s Office that Wyoming law requires the case to be transferred to district court before charges are released publicly. A circuit court clerk said the case had not been bound over as of Thursday afternoon.

According to the court, Granderson is being represented in the case through Pence and MacMillan, a law firm with offices in Laramie, Cheyenne and Sheridan. However, a circuit court clerk could not specify which attorney at the firm is representing Granderson. A message left Thursday with the firm’s Laramie office seeking comment was not returned Thursday.

In most cases, a third-degree sexual assault conviction in Wyoming carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Sexual battery, a misdemeanor, is punishable by up to one year in jail.

The school said in a release that suspension is the usual course of action when felony charges are involved but officials cannot suspend Granderson since the alleged incident occurred after his eligibility expired.

The Laramie Police Department conducted the investigation since the alleged incident occurred off campus. LPD Lieutenant Gwendolyn Smith said the department received a dispatch call on Nov. 26 before an incident report was filed into records the next day.

“The sexual assault charges recently filed against Carl Granderson are serious, and the allegations are troubling,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said in a statement. “I want to assure the people of Wyoming that we hold our young men to the highest of standards, and this alleged behavior is unacceptable.”

Granderson, a senior this past season, has graduated and is no longer enrolled at the university. The defensive end recently participated in the Senior Bowl and is projected to be taken in the upcoming NFL Draft. He earned all-Mountain West honors after his junior season and received an invite to the upcoming NFL Combine.

Though a date hasn’t been announced, the school will also host its pro day at some point this spring, where Wyoming’s top draft prospects will work out on campus in front of NFL personnel. A message left with Wyoming’s athletic department Thursday regarding Granderson’s participation has not been returned.

“We strive to have our student-athletes represent our athletics department and the state of Wyoming in a manner that we can all be proud of,” athletic director Tom Burman said in a statement. “But when charges such as those that were filed against former football player Carl Granderson are made, we deal with them directly and in accordance with University of Wyoming policies. These alleged actions will not be tolerated.

“We appreciate the manner in which Coach Bohl has worked with our athletics administration in dealing with this incident. We have been and will continue to be committed to educating our student-athletes and our staff on ways they can help prevent sexual assault, and we are committed to providing a safe environment for our student-athletes.”

Granderson, a Sacramento, California, native, is the third known Wyoming athlete facing criminal charges stemming from incidents this school year.

Youhanna Ghaifan, also a star defensive lineman, was suspended from the team after an October incident involving a hotel worker in Fort Collins, Colorado. The redshirt junior was cited for Level 3 harassment and Level 2 false imprisonment after allegedly trapping a female housekeeper against a wall and trying to kiss her. He pleaded no contest in the misdemeanor case and later declared for the NFL Draft.

Ny Redding, a senior on the men’s basketball team, was suspended indefinitely and charged with one count of simple assault and one count of battery in January. Redding was accused of taking a swing at a woman and drawing blood after nicking her nose while also striking another woman, “knocking her down and unconscious,” according to citations filed last month in circuit court.