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Continental Divides

Lawyers Protecting Us From Lawyers

Montana's withdrawal from the National Association of State Attorneys General was some move, considering that two years ago Austin Knudsen’s Republican predecessor was elected to lead the distinguished organization

By John McCaslin

Four months have passed since state Attorney General Austin Knudsen rebelled, withdrawing Montana’s membership in the National Association of State Attorneys General.

It was quite the move, considering that two years ago Knudsen’s Republican predecessor, then-Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, was elected to lead the distinguished organization founded in 1907. But these aren’t normal times.

In a joint statement issued by Knudsen and two fellow state attorneys general who simultaneously jumped ship, NAAG’s “leftward shift over the past half decade has become intolerable.”

“Indeed, this liberal bent has fundamentally undermined NAAG’s role as a ‘nonpartisan national forum’ that ‘provides a community … to collaboratively address’ important issues,” they wrote.

“We can no longer spend our taxpayers’ money to sustain our membership with NAAG under these circumstances.”

Which brings the number to five Republican AG’s – seated in Alabama, Arizona, Missouri, Texas and Montana – who have recently quit NAAG amid accusations of left wing bias.

Knudsen didn’t expand much on the “liberal bent,” but he did post on Facebook his concerns about NAAG’s “financial management and practices.” 

“Montanans rightly expect their elected officials to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and transparency from funds that are supposed to be managed in our best interests,” he wrote, referring in part to NAAG’s annual membership dues.

Republican AG’s have similarly complained that NAAG often takes a disproportionate larger share of multi-state lawsuit settlements than its member states – and impacted citizens – receive.

An earlier quote by an anonymous state official in Helena, resurrected this past week in the Washington media, likened NAAG to a Las Vegas casino, where “the house always takes … a pretty substantial cut … to the point you’d almost think that they’re a state.”

Which leads us to $280 million in assets held and controlled by NAAG. Republican AG’s have expressed concern that these funds and future settlement proceeds out of their control could be funneled into litigation that benefits the left.

Certainly, NAAG and its 56 member states and territories have had opposing viewpoints and priorities over the last 115 years. Currently, for example, blue state AG’s might be focused on facilitating clean energy deployment (a NAAG priority) in their states, while red state AG’s are exercising their territorial energy rights and interests.

The headline from a NAAG Eastern Region meeting in Boston – “Clean Energy Issues Are on the Docket for State Attorneys General” – surely had AG heads spinning in fossil fuel producing states like Montana. 

NAAG through all of this denies playing politics.

“NAAG is a nonpartisan organization and engages in policy advocacy only when an issue has bipartisan support from a majority [at least 36] of attorneys general,” it states.

Still, when it rains over a divided country it pours. 

To the extent that last week 12 additional Republican AG’s not only echoed Knudsen’s “leftward drift” allegations, but took it a step further.

They are demanding that NAAG commit to an unprecedented internal reorganization, starting with allocating its valuable assets to member states.

“While NAAG should continue to maintain a reasonable operating budget … we do not understand how that mission requires that NAAG retain over $280 million in assets and the associated income from those assets,” the dozen attorneys wrote. 

If financial reforms don’t take place, more Republicans are threatening to walk, regardless if it’s to a state’s detriment.

AG’s historically have utilized NAAG as a litigious umbrella, bypassing state legislatures to acquire funding and other required resources to participate in beneficial multi-state lawsuits, whether that be targeting the tobacco industry in the past or the opioid pushers today.

And talk about timing, I cannot imagine being in Brian Kane’s shoes. Just one week ago, after a lengthy nationwide search, Kane became NAAG’s new executive director, chosen unanimously by a special committee of 10 state attorneys general – five Republicans and five Democrats.

Kane hails from the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, where he’s been chief deputy attorney general. Saluting the selection, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, a Republican, commented that “NAAG is an organization near and dear to my heart,” and Kane “has the right skillset to successfully lead NAAG in 2022 and beyond.”

Apart from overseeing daily operations, Kane will coordinate NAAG’s policy centers and training programs – all currently under Republican scrutiny.

Who knows, perhaps one day he will draw some disgruntled Republicans back into NAAG’s fold. 

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.

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