‘Ship Drifting Further From Shore’: AG Association Fails to Quell Concerns Over Left-Wing Partisanship

Nebraska attorney general Doug Peterson speaks as other state AGs listen on / Getty Images
April 27, 2022

The National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) hoped to quell concerns about its leftward lurch at its annual conference this week. It did not succeed.

The flagship organization for state legal officers shoehorned a session about bipartisanship onto the agenda of this week's conference in Austin, Texas, and lined up an outgoing Republican attorney general as its new executive director. But word leaked that the group has already lined up that individual's Democratic successor. And much of the conference's programming was decidedly progressive, featuring a keynote appearance from left-wing moneyman Tom Steyer's brother.

"NAAG is like a ship drifting ever further from shore. And far from being a true bipartisan entity, it is basically a fully functioning arm of the trial bar," a former senior official in a Republican AG office told the Washington Free Beacon. "The recent meeting in Austin was the hallmark of how far NAAG has moved away from issues that used to draw all 50 AGs (plus D.C.) together to truly resolve issues."

The Free Beacon reported that Republican AGs are ready to flee the organization, once the lead bipartisan forum for state AGs to exchange ideas and coordinate on issues of mutual interest. Its GOP critics say the organization has become a legal "deep state" that allows liberal career staff in red-state AG offices to coordinate multi-state actions with limited interference from their Republican bosses. And they fear the settlement funds that NAAG administers have devolved into left-wing litigation slush funds.

Nebraska attorney general Doug Peterson (R.) will take over as NAAG's new executive director when he leaves office later this year, according to two sources with knowledge of NAAG's plans. The Peterson hiring has not been previously reported. Bringing a Republican on as the operational lead would be a meaningful bipartisan gesture. But Peterson is expected to be little more than a caretaker. He's in the twilight of his career, and he will be joined by a deputy who will likely take over in the medium term—Vermont attorney general T.J. Donovan, a Democrat.

Peterson is popular and respected in the AG community, but his more conservative brethren worry he'll be a stooge for NAAG's liberal staff. And with Peterson's deep experience as a trial lawyer, conservatives fear he'll keep NAAG's hands in the public pocket. The organization has landed tens of millions of dollars from nationwide settlements involving car emissions and the opioid crisis, incensing Republicans who say that money belongs to victims of wrongdoing.

"Doug is remarkably well liked personally," said a second senior official in a Republican AG office. "But no one seriously considers Doug to be a conservative firebrand who could reform a left-leaning organization, especially as he enters the beginning of his retirement."

The former official characterized Peterson's hiring as "kabuki theater" and noted he has a natural successor in Donovan, a "young, mid-career liberal."

Of the 20 attorneys general on hand for NAAG's conference, just 5 were Republicans. Only two of the five are actually elected—the other three are appointees of the governor or the state supreme court. The two elected AGs were Peterson and Ohio's Dave Yost, billed as a RINO in the New York Times.

Texas attorney general Ken Paxton (R.) was slated to speak at the conference—his office is a five-minute shot up Guadalupe Street in downtown Austin—but he pulled out in favor of a multi-day trip to Washington, D.C.

The lunchtime speaker during Tuesday's program was James Steyer, brother of left-wing billionaire Tom Steyer. His remarks had a populist gloss—he pushed for state AGs to put the screws to tech companies and protect consumer privacy—but some attendees detected a hidden agenda. Steyer pushed attendees to police Big Tech via consumer protection lawsuits, allowing trial lawyers—a solidly Democratic constituency—and left-wing advocacy groups to line their pockets.

Gestures at bipartisanship extended to conference programming. A Tuesday session on cross-party cooperation openly rested on NAAG's laurels. It was entitled Bipartisan Greatest Hits.

Republicans blanched at the topics discussed in the bipartisanship session. They included a rehash of multi-state settlement agreements that state AGs entered with corporate defendants for consumer protection violations. For example, consulting behemoth McKinsey & Company paid out about $600 million to 49 states over advice it gave to drugmakers to boost opioid sales. NAAG pocketed $15 million under the terms of that settlement.

As the Free Beacon reported in March, that money—and payouts from other multi-state settlements—sits in Democrat-controlled litigation funds that bankroll leftwing consumer protection training and lawsuits. Republican AGs say they've been stonewalled when they've asked NAAG staff about appropriations from those funds.

For example, Alabama attorney general Steve Marshall (R.) pulled out of the organization after the McKinsey settlement. Alabama, a nationwide leader in opioid prescriptions, got only $9 million out of the deal.

Spokesmen for Peterson, Donovan, and Paxton did not return the Free Beacon's request for comment.