Attorney General Mike Hunter defended his tenure from attacks during a Republican primary debate today at the Tower Theatre.
During questions about Oklahoma’s civil lawsuit about opioids, top challenger Gentner Drummond claimed that Republican Attorneys General Association independent-expenditure ads meant that Hunter was being supported by pharmaceutical companies that had donated to RAGA.
“Only one of us on the stage has accepted money from pharmaceutical companies,” Drummond said.
“To speculate that there’s money coming into my campaign from pharmaceuticals is just wrong, and there’s no evidence to substantiate it,” Hunter said.
Drummond took advantage of the microphone in his hand, responding: “Mr. Hunter, that is a lie.”
“Excuse me?” Hunter asked before responding. “I think we should all conduct ourselves as chief law officers of the state whether we are or not.”
The GOP primary’s third candidate, Angela Bonilla, sat between the two men and paused before requesting civility.
“I think we need to stop with the smokescreen here,” she said. “The real problem is the opioid epidemic, and we just need to focus on that.”
Along with the opioid epidemic, the candidates discussed untested rape kits, the Tar Creek audit, transparency in the attorney general’s office as well as their views on State Question 788.
Tuesday, Republican voters will decide which candidate will advance to face Democrat Mark Myles in the Nov. 6 general election. There could be a GOP runoff-primary Aug. 28 if neither Hunter, Drummond nor Bonilla receives more than 50 percent of the vote.
The debate can be watched in the Facebook video embedded below. (Please note that the camera becomes positioned correctly around the eight-minute mark.)
What does the attorney general do?
Oklahoma’s attorney general acts as the state’s chief law enforcement officer and head of the office of the attorney general, prosecuting a variety of top crimes. He or she provides legal counsel to the Oklahoma government and defends the state from lawsuits and criminal appeals, occasionally filing civil cases on behalf of the public.
Bonilla: ‘Every voice needs to be heard’
While Bonilla has been absent from most of the race’s ugliness, she offered moments of criticism for Hunter during the debate.
“If someone’s telling me no crime was committed [at Tar Creek], then I cry unfair, untrue,” she said when discussing a controversial state audit ultimately released by Hunter’s office after his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, had been investigating a potential criminal conspiracy. “If we’re hiding this from the public, what else is being hidden? I think we need to have transparency across the board in our government, period.”
Bonilla is a public defender from Tulsa. In her opening remarks, she told the story of her own court struggles in which she fought against the state to maintain custody of her children before she obtained her law degree.
“I stood my ground, I had my voice heard and I protected my child,” she said. “And that’s when I decided I was going to become an attorney so I could be a voice for the voiceless and the powerless.”
Bonilla commended Hunter in his pursuance of Oklahoma’s lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies seeking damages for the state’s opioid crisis. She expanded her views on the matter, saying she would also hold doctors accountable for overprescribing opioids.
“[Physicians] are the last defense of our health,” she said. “We don’t have that medical degree. We depend on doctors to prescribe medication that is at least safe for us.”
Drummond and Hunter later agreed on that sentiment. Bonilla also told a story about being prescribed pain pills she did not need.
Throughout the debate, Bonilla drew on her experience as a public defender, saying she would like to “ban the box” in reference to the section of a job application that asks if someone has been convicted of a felony. She argued such measures inhibit formerly incarcerated people from obtaining meaningful employment, which leads to further incarceration if they cannot pay court and supervision fees.
“Last I checked, Oklahoma is not a debtor state,” she said.
On SQ 788, Bonilla informed the audience she would personally be voting to legalize medical marijuana.
“I believe that Oklahomans need to be afforded the right to alternative treatment,” she said. “I think it would also alleviate the opioid epidemic we have.”
Drummond: ‘What I have observed is a lack of transparency’
Drummond is a Tulsa-based attorney, veteran of the U.S. Air Force and a businessman. In his opening remarks, Drummond called for change in the attorney general’s office.
“Oklahoma has an opportunity,” Drummond said. “This is a crossroads during this election cycle. We have observed and lived through 10 years of failed leadership.”
To Drummond, the attorney general’s office needs more transparency, and he referenced the Tar Creek audit repeatedly.
“I find that inexplicable, unexplainable and unforgivable,” he said.
While Drummond said he supports the lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies, he voiced several complaints about Hunter’s selection of outside counsel to lead the opioid case.
“I think had there been some free-market capitalism in play with negotiating between certain law firms that are certainly qualified, the fee would have been capped,” he said. Drummond said he would rather see the money paid to Oklahomans.
While Drummond persisted in his criticism of Hunter, he minced no words in tirades against pharmaceutical companies and promised he would not dispose of the opioid lawsuit if he becomes attorney general.
“The manufacturers knew the opioids to be addictive, one, and two, that they would cause death for addiction,” he began. “And it’s that action — that flagrant disregard for Oklahomans — that they need to be prosecuted to the highest extent of the law.”
Drummond also said he finds Oklahoma’s more than 7,000 untested rape kits to be “abhorrent.” In his responses, Drummond said he would have put Oklahoma’s money from the VW manufacturer settlement towards the testing of these rape kits.
Drummond did not directly express his personal views on SQ 788.
“I think that the attorney general will have to be forefront in the negotiation of the rules and regulations this has promulgated if it does pass,” he said. “As attorney general, I won’t make law, but I will enforce law.”
Hunter: ‘These entities are, in effect, evil’
A former legislator and Oklahoma secretary of state, Hunter was appointed by Gov. Mary Fallin to fill the remainder of Pruitt’s term in February 2017.
Hunter said attorney general is the most important job in state government and listed achievements since he filled the position. He discussed his prosecution of child pornographers and corrupt state officials as well as a deal on rate reductions with OG&E that he said would save Oklahomans $80 million.
“At the end of the day, my responsibility — our responsibility — in this office is to keep you safe,” Hunter said.
Hunter spent much of the debate rebutting jabs, primarily from Drummond.
“The facts are that I had nothing to do with the Tar Creek audit,” Hunter said after both his opponents spoke negatively on the subject. “I had two new prosecutors, one Democrat and one Republican, look at the case thoroughly. They found no crimes, nothing chargeable.”
Hunter renewed his vigor against pharmaceutical companies.
“These entities are, in effect, evil, and they have done great damage to the state,” he said.
He also defended his choice of outside legal counsel from Drummond’s attacks.
“The idea that I cold look any further than somebody who I was convinced was the finest lawyer in the state didn’t make sense to me,” Hunter said. “I knew we weren’t just getting good lawyers, I knew we were getting lawyers who were going to pour their heart and soul into this case.”
Hunter also expressed concern over untested rape kits in Oklahoma, saying, “There ought to be no bigger priority in the Legislature than providing funding for law enforcement agencies to get these kits tested.”
Hunter expressed his concerns about SQ 788, saying he was personally against the initiative and calling it “recreational marijuana light.”
“This state question has very little to do with medical marijuana,” he said. “For those of you who are supportive of recreational marijuana in the state, this is mostly what you’re going to get.”
He also expressed concern about the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s ability to handle the regulation of medical marijuana.
“The health department is in no position to regulate this,” he said.
Sponsors, partners and other debates
The Republican attorney general primary debate was co-hosted by NonDoc in partnership with the Tower Theatre, Let’s Fix This and Generation Citizen. The debate was made possible by the following financial sponsors:
- Chubbuck Duncan and Robey, P.C.
- Crowe & Dunlevy
- Foshee & Yaffe
- Fulmer Sill
- Oklahoma Association of Defense Counsel
- The West Law Firm
- Continental Resources
- Oklahoma Wind Power
NonDoc, Let’s Fix This and Generation Citizen have also hosted a Republican commissioner of labor debate, a Democratic commissioner of labor debate and a Republican state auditor and inspector debate ahead of the June 26 primary. Follow this link for NonDoc’s full 2018 election coverage.