SLO County supervisors to discuss costly move in opioid suit

July 9, 2022


San Luis Obispo County Counsel Rita Neal told the Board of Supervisors last year that they needed to hire a local attorney to represent the county’s interest in a national class action suit against Purdue Pharma over the opioid epidemic.

She recommended local attorney Don Ernst, a man who has close ties to Neal. The Board of Supervisors agreed to a contingency fee agreement with Ernst even though the case had reached its settlement stage long before Neal recommended him. Ernst could now stand to collect a substantial amount of money from a $6 billion national settlement reached by 23 states and more than 2,000 local governments.

California is expected to get $486 million to pay for opioid addiction treatment and prevention.

Neal made her recommendation despite a vote by the Board of Supervisors some years earlier to have the District Attorney’s Office upgrade its consumer protection department. District Attorney Dan Dow was allowed to hire an attorney and investigator who were to be funded by lawsuit revenues.

Dow disagrees with Neal’s hiring of a private attorney when his office should have been involved in the process.

“The District Attorney’s Office was not consulted regarding the county’s opioid litigation and was not asked to give our approval for the use of our exclusive prosecutorial authority,” Dow said. “If I had been asked, I would not have agreed because the hiring of private lawyers on a contingent-fee violates California’s ethical principles for public prosecutors, according to Supreme Court decisions and the California District Attorney’s Association ethics manual.”

Dow is the chair of the California District Attorney’s Association Consumer Protection Committee.

SLO County Counsel Rita Neal

The recommendation of Ernst also appears to violate California’s Business and Professions Code 17204, which requires the District Attorney’s Office have first crack at representing the county in the suit, according to Dow.

Contingency fee agreements typically call for attorneys to be paid a percentage of the settlement or award in civil cases. Those percentages usually start at 33 percent and go up depending on the type of case and its particular elements.

It’s not known what percentage the Board of Supervisors agreed to regarding Neal’s recommendation because it was agreed to in closed session. It is also not known what role Ernst played or would play in the settlement that was finalized by a federal judge in March of this year. The lawsuit entered its end process in August, 2019, when the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma, offered a multi-billion-dollar settlement.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to discuss whether Ernst or the District Attorney’s Office should represent the county in the case during closed session on Tuesday, according to the agenda.

Ernst met with Supervisor Lynn Compton after she voted against renewing Neal’s contract with the county, to voice his support of Neal.

Ernst told Compton that Neal is “family,” Compton said. Ernst warned that if Compton made another attempt to remove Neal, he would put enough money in to her opponent’s campaign to defeat her in the 2022 election. Ernst’s wife and business partner then donated heavily to Jimmy Paulding’s successful campaign for supervisor.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that overdose deaths from opioids topped 136,000 in the past two years. The CDC also reported that the opioid epidemic costs the United States $1 trillion a year.

The settlement protects the Sackler family from any existing or future lawsuits filed over OxyContin and other Purdue pain medications, National Public Radio reported in March, when the settlement was approved by a federal judge. It does not shield either the Sacklers or Purdue from any criminal prosecutions.

The Sackler family has admitted no wrongdoing in its business practices.

The settlement covers 138,000 claims made against Purdue over deaths, the birth of children exposed to OxyContin who suffered neonatal abstinence syndrome, and expenses resulting from opioid addiction. Claims required that people provide detailed accountings of prescriptions, urine tests, doctors visits, detox and rehab stays, National Public Radio reported in Sept. 2021.

NPR reported that the family of one opioid addiction victim, who spent $125,000 trying to treat his addiction, could receive a maximum award of between $26,000 and $40,000 over his death.

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It sounds as though Rita Neal needs to be fired. Ernst needs to be avoided like the plague and Jimmy Paulding needs to be watched very closely.

So why didn’t this little tidbit of information about trying to intimadate Compton and bankrolling paulding come out before the election, the people deserve to know what type of person they are electing, so little jimmy is going to be beholding to these people.

County Council should be an elected position like the County Auditor they should be accountable to the public always seems like a huge conflict of interest going on with her.

Look up definition of sleazy lawyer and you will find Ernst’s name! He makes a living out of seeking out class action law suits, where the injured gets pennies on the dollar for their damages, and he rakes in the big winnings. We met him many years ago when he was trying to put together a class action suit against State Farm Insurance. The bigger the better!

Goes to show that the good guys like Compton can’t win over the big bucks of the corrupt. Now what favors will Paulding have to “pay back” once he’s in the Supervisor seat? I bet plenty!

Maybe Ernst should form a class action lawsuit over all of the fentanyl deaths we are sure to see coming up. He can sue the sitting President for not controlling the borders!

Legal and political rats come in all different varieties and it appears we have two in our midst, Neal and Ernst. I keep hoping our Board of Supervisors will step up and ethically serve this community …. but I’m still waiting. Thank you CCN for again keeping us informed and reporting on what really goes on behind closed doors.

Par for the course for Rita Neal, fail at your job, have to hire outside council yet again, and get another raise….. you are telling me we couldn’t get another attorney to always have to hire outside councils for $75,000?

Sackler family = Satan

I lost 3 friends to oxycontin/ dilauded in SLO during the peak of the crisis when we were in high school. All the pills were from parents who were prescribed for things like back pain and tooth aches. Some would give them to us not knowing how dangerous it was. Really was a disgusting cycle. Thankful for the ones who made it out

I sure hope Ernie won’t be earning anything on this one…except perhaps some jail time. Let’s see if we can parse the crimes…nepotism, extortion, nonfeasance, misfeasance, malfeasance, misappropriation of county funds, self-dealing, conflicts of interest, not to mention poor judgment, code violations, and ethics lapses. Business as usual for Neal.

Gee, another terrible decision by the Board. They should all be ousted. Compton, however well intentioned she was in this case, is the first casualty. Hill, obviously. And now Gibson, although I have no confidence that Jones will run a winning campaign. Arnold and Peschong need to go in 2024.

Money from the drug peddlers at Purdue should go to the families of those who have overdosed, not already wealthy attorneys. The Sacklers are cowards and they won’t admit they gained billions by killing Americans. And many of you think that Dayspring is bad. He’s a piker compared to the Sacklers.