A disagreement between the Minnesota Attorney General's office and a non-profit anti-tobacco organization escalated Tuesday. The two sides are fighting over how the non-profit distributes hundreds of millions of dollars for smoking cessation and medical research. Attorney General Mike Hatch filed a lawsuit in Ramsey District Court last week, saying the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco is misusing its funds. Hatch wants someone else to oversee the money.
When the state settled its $6.1 billion lawsuit with tobacco companies in 1998, the non-profit group Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco was formed, and given $202 million to help people quit smoking and to finance medical research.
The group says it's using the money appropriately by doing things like creating a smoking cessation hotline and pursuing smoking ban efforts in cities and town throughout the state.
However, Attorney General Mike Hatch says MPAAT isn't spending in accordance with the court order that led to its formation. He says, for instance, that the group isn't doing enough to help smokers quit. He also alleges there's a conflict of interest at MPAAT, because 80 percent of its grants go to organizations that have members on MPAAT's board of directors.
"Three months I've had meetings with these people, and they can't get it through their heads about whose money this is. It is state money," says Hatch. "It is illegal to just hand money out to somebody and say, 'Do what you want.' I can't do that, Attorney General Humphrey couldn't do that, nobody could do that, no state official. They are accountable to that state and if they refuse to then we will have other agencies do it."
The motion Hatch filed in Ramsey County District Court last week would strip MPAAT's funding, and divide it between the Minnesota Deparment of Health and the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center. He says those two groups could better decide how to spend money on anti-smoking efforts and medical research.
MPAAT's board chair, Dr. Richard Hurt, says MPAAT's programs are effective ways to combat smoking. Hurt, who is also a Mayo Clinic physician, says MPAAT's policies are based on solid research. He says efforts to discourage smoking will be hindered if the two sides continue arguing.
"Time and again, we have seen big tobacco make some of its greatest gains - that is to addict more of our children - when those of us who share a common goal are divided on the tactics," says Hurt.
Hurt says Hatch could do more to discourage tobacco use by investigating whether tobacco companies are violating the state settlement by advertising to minors. He also would like to see Hatch reject campaign contributions from tobacco companies, and wants Hatch to fill the two vacancies to MPAAT's board that are designated as attorney general appointees.
"I think there would be a strong interest, and strong importance, in trying to preserve the focus of this money for tobacco prevention."
- Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm
Hatch says he won't name any members to the board since one of his appointees, former State Supreme Court Justice Sandra Gardebring, resigned last month. Hatch presented letters to the media in which Gardebring explained her decision to resign from the MPAAT board. She wrote the board's failure to address conflict of interest problems is undermining public confidence.
One person caught in the middle of the tug of war is Minnesota's Commissioner of Health, Jan Malcolm. Malcolm is one of MPAAT's 21 board members, but would also oversee half the endowment if Hatch has his way.
Malcolm says one of Hatch's main concerns - MPAAT's independence from public scrutiny - also serves as a benefit. She says House Republicans' efforts to use a portion of a seperate tobacco endowment to balance the budget shows the danger of handing the money over to the state.
"The temptation to look to that tobacco settlement money as a short-term band-aid solution is very tempting," says Malcolm. "I think there would be a strong interest, and strong importance, in trying to preserve the focus of this money for tobacco prevention."
Hatch believes the money would be safe since it's already earmarked by the court. Arguments will be heard in Ramsey County District Court on May 17.More from MPR