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AG candidate Wofford details plans for combating opioid crisis

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

The Republican candidate for New York Attorney General was in Buffalo Wednesday morning to offer his plans for taking on the opioid crisis, if elected. Keith Wofford vowed to continue current state litigation against a pharmaceutical company which produces OxyContin. His opponent, meanwhile, says there's a conflict of interest because the law firm where Wofford currently works has represented the company targeted by the current Attorney General.

Wofford stood outside Hutchinson Tech High School on Elmwood with State Senator Chris Jacobs. The school was not involved in Wofford's appearance, though the Buffalo native chose to use the school as a backdrop to recall advice passed to him while growing up: in order to keep a sharp mind, it must be drug-free.

Stating that opioid overdoses are contributing to the first two-year decline in Americans' average life expectancy in 55 years, Wofford announced that if elected he would utilize resources available through the Attorney General's office to go after two prominent sources distributing the addictive and deadly drugs: the street dealers and doctors who are unlawfully prescribing them. 

"Drug dealers are taking to putting the super-hazardous fentanyl in with other drugs, including marijuana, creating a toxic and fatal brew on our streets," he said. "The Attorney General's office, under my watch, will in fact use the Organized Crime Task Force to supplement District Attorneys and local law enforcement around the state."

He would also use the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit to look into doctors who are overprescribing opioids, as well as companies which are failing to disclose the risks of the opioids they produce.

Wofford also vowed to continue ongoing state litigation against one pharmaceutical company and said proceeds from civil litigation and forefeitures would be used to fund law enforcement, first responders and cover the cost of inpatient treatment beds.

"We will continue the civil lawsuit against Purdue Pharma and against any other members of the industry who are found to have knowingly flooded the streets with amounts of drugs that are not medically merited," he said.

This vow, however, has his opponent raising a red flag and accusing Wofford of a conflict of interest. The New York Daily News, earlier this month, reported the law firm where Wofford serves as co-managing partner - Ropes and Gray - has in previous years represented Purdue Pharma. 

Jack Sterne, the spokesperson for Democratic candidate Letitia James, issued the following statement: "Keith Wofford can't have it both ways. He can't claim he wants to address the opioid epidemic while profiting off the crisis through his Wall Street law firm. Lives are at stake -- and this blatant conflict of interest is exactly why we called on Mr. Wofford and his law firm to disclose their full client list."

James was in Sleepy Hollow on Wednesday, promoting her policy for protecting New York's water supply. Her campaign forwarded her stance on the opioid crisis and her plans for tackling it if elected. They include appointing a Special Counsel to handle opioid-related matters, broadening litigation to hold pharmaceutical companies and physicians more accountable for harmful effects, addressing conflicts of interests among doctors who may receive financial incentives for prescribing painkillers and upholding the state's Opioid Stewardship Act. She would use money collected in settlements and penalties to support treatment centers and compensate the families of victims.

Wofford, when asked about claims of conflict of interest, denied any improper involvement with the Purdue Pharma case.

"I personally never have worked for them," he said. "I'm severing all my ties with my law firm when I'm elected, so that's not really going to be an issue at all."

Erie County officials have reported a trend suggesting that for the second year, opioid-related deaths will decrease. In 2016, 301 cases were recorded. State Senator Jacobs, while welcoming the news and crediting the county's task force for its work to tackle opioid addiction, stated that Erie County is an exception to the problem in New York State.

"Unfortunately, the rest of the state doesn't seem to be along that," he said. "It's great that it's heading down. I hope that's a trend, long-term. But I was at a wake last week. There's no solace to that family that there's a downward trend. As long as we're losing hundreds of lives still, this is the public health crisis of our generation."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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