A Ramsey County judge has stopped an anti-tobacco group from using state tobacco settlement funds until it reforms its operation. Judge Michael Fetsch issued a ruling Thursday preventing the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco, also known as MPAAT, from issuing grants until it submits a plan for preventing conflicts of interest. He also ordered the group to come up with a solid plan to help Minnesotans quit smoking.
Attorney General Mike Hatch went to court to strip MPAAT of $202 million in tobacco settlement funds on the grounds it has not fulfilled its mission. He accused the organization of squandering the public's trust and failing to help smokers quit.
Hatch argued that MPAAT has focused too much on funding local campaigns to ban smoking in public, and has forgotten to help individual smokers. He also claimed the group was rife with conflicts of interest, because members of the board also represented organizations or agencies requesting MPAAT money. State Solicitor General Allen Gilbert says he's pleased with the ruling.
"The court agreed with our position on both points, and allowed MPAAT to try to come up with plans to deal with these very important and significant issues," Gilbert says.
In his ruling, Judge Michael Fetsch stopped MPAAT from spending any more tobacco settlement money until it develops an acceptable plan for helping individual smokers quit. He also ordered a plan to prevent real or apparent conflicts of interest between the MPAAT board of directors and the organizations receiving anti-smoking grants.
"The ruling maintains the independence of MPAAT. This is absolutely essential...the alliance of big tobacco and politics leaves little room for the protection of the public's health."
- Dr. Richard Hurt, MPAAT board chairman
The judge's ruling denied the state's request to remove MPAAT as administrator of the tobacco funds, and then divide the money between the State Health Department and the University of Minnesota School of Medicine. Dr. Richard Hurt, MPAAT's board chairman, described the ruling as a victory.
"Key points of the ruling affirm MPAAT's work, but gives us work to do that has yet to be done. First and foremost, the ruling maintains the independence of MPAAT. This is absolutely essential," Hurt says. "As Minnesotans saw in the last session of the Legislature, the alliance of big tobacco and politics leaves little room for the protection of the public's health."
Hurt says the ruling recognizes the valuable and legitimate role of MPAAT's environmental approach to smoking cessation. While Judge Fetsch did praise MPAAT's argument for an environmental approach, he also called the group's focus a "misplaced commitment, which excludes meaningful tobacco cessation programs for individual tobacco users."
"(MPAAT has) not complied with state law and with the court order (in its four years of existence). And we question whether...MPAAT is now going to be able to do so."
- State Solicitor General Allen Gilbert
Fetch was similarly critical of the structure of the group's board of directors, which he says clouds and inhibits MPAAT's effectiveness. According to the judge, "the board needs to be radically restructured" to avoid real and apparent conflicts of interest. Hurt says he's glad to get direction from the court.
"Our structure was dictated by the original court order that established MPAAT in 1998. We will take to heart the mandate to radically restructure the governance of our organization - from the appointing authorities of board members to the approval of grant applications," Hurt says.
MPAAT's ability to fund anti-smoking grants will remain on hold until the judge approves both of the ordered plans. Allen Gilbert says the attorney general's office has serious concerns about MPAAT's ability to comply with the court order.
"MPAAT has been in existence for about four years, after the tobacco settlement was negotiated. And as the court has determined, they have not complied with state law and with the court order within that period of time. And we question whether - after four years - MPAAT is now going to be able to do so," Gilbert says.
Under the court order, MPAAT leaders have 90 days to submit the two plans to the court.More from MPR