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Lawsuits: Group deciding how to distribute millions in Ohio opioid settlement money violated open-meetings, public-records law

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 8/9/2022 Jeremy Pelzer, cleveland.com
Members of the OneOhio Recovery Foundation Board listen as Gov. Mike DeWine (upper left) speaks. The 29-member board, which will decide how to spend more than $440 million in opioid settlement money, held its first meeting in Columbus on Monday, with some members participating remotely. (Jeremy Pelzer, cleveland.com © Jeremy Pelzer/cleveland.com/TNS Members of the OneOhio Recovery Foundation Board listen as Gov. Mike DeWine (upper left) speaks. The 29-member board, which will decide how to spend more than $440 million in opioid settlement money, held its first meeting in Columbus on Monday, with some members participating remotely. (Jeremy Pelzer, cleveland.com

COLUMBUS, Ohio—The OneOhio Recovery Foundation Board, set up to decide how distribute hundreds of millions of dollars of opioid settlement money, is refusing to divulge records or allow the public to attend meetings, according to lawsuits filed by a drug policy reform group.

The lawsuits, filed by Harm Reduction Ohio, claim that OneOhio officials haven’t responded to the group’s request for documents related to OneOhio board meetings in May and June, as well as “numerous” committee meetings working on “hiring, finances, bylaws and other matters.”

The open-meetings lawsuit also claims that Harm Reduction Ohio president Dennis Cauchon wasn’t allowed to attend the board’s initial meeting in May. That was despite RecoveryOhio, Gov. Mike DeWine’s mental-health and anti-addiction initiative, posting on its website that the board would operate as if it was subject to Ohio’s open-meetings law, according to the suit.

“If unnoticed meetings have taken place, this would be a violation of the Open Meetings Act regardless of how the meetings are labeled — committees, subcommittees, working groups, work sessions, etc.,” states the open-meetings lawsuit, filed in Franklin County Common Pleas Court. The public-records suit was filed with the Ohio Supreme Court.

The 29-member OneOhio Recovery Foundation Board consists of state representatives, local government leaders (including Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish), addiction treatment experts, and others from around the state. Various members were appointed by DeWine, legislative leaders, Attorney General Dave Yost, and regional boards selected by local elected officials.

Under an agreement between state and local officials made in 2020, the new foundation will decide how to distribute more than $440 million (or 55%) of an $808 million settlement reached last year with the nation’s three largest pharmaceutical distributors and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson.

According to the lawsuits, OneOhio claims it isn’t subject to public-records or open-meetings law because it’s a private non-profit, not a government entity. However, Harm Reduction Ohio’s suits note that OneOhio has not so far been recognized as a 501(c)(3) non-profit.

Even if it received such status, the lawsuits claim, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in a previous case that a private entity is subject to public-records law if it was created by government officials with government money for a governmental purpose – all of which is the case with OneOhio, the suits claim.

Cauchon, in an interview, called the $404 million controlled by OneOhio a “secret slush fund.”

Asked why, Cauchon said, “Because it’s half a billion dollars, and they believe that no one has a right to know what they’re doing with it.” He added: “I think they mean well. But meaning well and doing well are not the same thing.”

OneOhio Recovery Foundation spokeswoman Connie Luck, in a statement, said: “An important lesson of the opiate epidemic is that communities must pull together, and the Foundation is committed to helping them do that—as quickly as possible.”

Luck continued: “It is unfortunate that anyone would want to take any steps at all to block or slow down Ohio’s communities from getting the relief they need to support recovery and prevention.”

Cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer sent Luck some specific questions regarding the lawsuits, including why OneOhio wouldn’t voluntarily release records and allow in-person attendance at meetings regardless of its obligation to follow public-records or open-meetings law.

DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney, when asked for comment, said that OneOhio isn’t a government agency. He also noted that OneOhio board meetings (though not committee meetings) are livestreamed to the public.

“The OneOhio Recovery Foundation was set up so that opioid litigation settlement proceeds could benefit future generations,” Tierney said in a statement. “While our office is not a party to the lawsuit, we believe that the OneOhio Recovery Foundation has provided significant transparency to date to the public.”

Here’s the Ohio Supreme Court public-records lawsuit:

Here’s the open-meetings lawsuit filed in Franklin County:

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit cleveland.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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