LONG BEACH — Since January, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson has filed 17 lawsuits against the Trump administration. He’s also suing makers of toxic petrochemicals and addictive painkillers and pursuing dozens of other initiatives.
However, a more personal project brought him to Long Beach on Oct. 24 — his effort to speak to every Rotary Club in the state.
“This is his 103rd,” spokeswoman Beth Carlson told the Observer. “He really sees it as an opportunity to get to know leaders in the state.”
The Democratic AG, who began his second term this year, answered questions from his audience during an hour-long appearance at Adrift Hotel. He spoke about what he’s doing to protect Washington consumers, his concerns about shifting national policies and the guiding principles that shape his wide-reaching agenda.
“Are Washingtonians being harmed? Do I have good legal arguments? And can the Attorney General bring the lawsuit?” Ferguson said. “If the answers to those questions are ‘Yes,’ ‘Yes’ and ‘Yes,’ then I’m interested.”
Ferguson was a public servant long before he was a politician. After graduating from University of Washington in the 1980s, he spent a year in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. While attending law school at New York University, he won a grant to provide legal services to the Yaqui Indians near the Arizona-Mexico border. Later, he clerked for two federal judges, then returned to the Seattle area and went into private practice.
He’s the kind of guy who works hard even when he’s playing. He has climbed mountains in 45 states and hiked “hundreds of miles” of trails in Washington. He’s also an internationally rated chess master, who has twice won the Washington State Chess Championship, according to the AGO website.
Not a party guy
His notorious ambition has led to some big victories, including the lawsuit that brought down President Donald Trump’s proposed “Muslim Ban” in February. However, it has also sometimes rankled other members of Washington’s Democratic party. He first took office in 2003, when he unseated a Democratic 20-year veteran of the King County Council. When his district was consolidated with another district in 2005, Ferguson again ran against an incumbent Democrat and won. He ran unopposed for the same seat in 2009. He was elected to his first term as AG in 2012. He replaced Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna.
During the past several months, Ferguson’s office has filed numerous campaign finance complaints against Democratic candidates and groups, leading some Democrats to express new misgivings about his perceived lack of party loyalty. Carlson, the spokeswoman, said Ferguson has recused himself from all cases involving Democratic entities, and does not comment on the cases.
About the office
Ferguson emphasized his efforts to protect Washington consumers. For example, he said, his office recently won a suit against a fraudulent company that conned almost 3,000 business owners into paying for fake government documents.
“That’s an example of what our legal team is doing for small businesses in the state,” Ferguson said.
With more than 500 attorneys and 600 other staff on the payroll, Ferguson oversees the state’s biggest law firm. The office’s numerous divisions and task forces work on a wide variety of projects, all aimed at protecting people, shaping policy, and enforcing the law. In addition to providing legal services for the state, AG staff also investigate and prosecute some criminal cases on behalf of county prosecutors, enforce fair business practice laws, assist police with homicide investigations, propose legislation, and conduct education campaigns about issues like identity theft and senior fraud prevention, among other things.
Under Ferguson’s leadership, the office’s remit has expanded to include a human rights unit, which played a critical role in the Muslim ban challenge. He also started a unit that prosecutes environmental cases.
“For at least 10 years before I became AG, we had never prosecuted a criminal environmental case,” Ferguson said. “That didn’t seem right to me.” So far, the counsel has filed about 27 criminal cases. It also filed a major lawsuit against Monsanto for polluting state waterways, including the Columbia River.
“What they did really angers me. They knew for decades,” Ferguson said.
Tackling a crisis
Addressing the so-called “opioid crisis” is one of the AG’s top priorities. As the number of Washington residents who are addicted to painkillers, heroin, fentanyl and other opioid drugs has risen, the office has tackled the problem in a variety of ways that illustrate Ferguson’s reach. Several months ago, he arranged a summit for police, social service providers and others to learn about the issue and share ideas. He also recently filed a major lawsuit against Purdue, the pharmaceutical company that makes the highly-addictive painkiller OxyContin. The lawsuit alleges Perdue claimed their drug was not addictive, despite overwhelming evidence that is was.
Ferguson is also preparing a couple of legislative proposals designed to curb overprescribing and abuse of prescription painkillers. He hopes the state will build a database that would allow doctors to see if patients are “doctor-shopping” for painkillers. He noted that 19 states already have databases.
“I think Washington is behind when it comes to progress on this. It’s just tragic what’s going on,” Ferguson said. “It’s a huge challenge.”
While the travel ban lawsuit gave Ferguson national name-recognition, many people at the Rotary meeting were interested in his stance on a more local immigration issue — a recent increase in raids by federal agents.
The limits of Ferguson’s influence became more apparent when audience members asked him what he was doing to help immigrants and communities cope with the raids. Ferguson said widespread confusion about immigration issues led his office produce an in-depth guide that advises librarians, police, hospital staff and other public servants about their rights and responsibilities. Asked how he felt about ICE agents showing up in courthouses, Ferguson said he was worried their presence could prevent immigrants from using emergency services, or speaking up about crimes. He pointed out that his office recently filed a suit against the private for-profit company that runs Northwest Detention Center, the Tacoma lockup where people picked up in local raids are usually detained. The suit alleges that the center forced detainees to work in harsh conditions for little or no pay, in violation of state labor laws.
However, he explained that his authority is limited to issues of state law. As such, he has little to no influence over the legal activities of federal agencies.
“It’s a big issue,” Ferguson said. “We try to be helpful where we can, but again, something has to be illegal.”
More than immigration at stake
Ferguson said he took on the “Muslim Ban” and other suits against the Trump administration in part because he believes the cases could set legal precedents that would affect many Americans. He was alarmed when, during the court battle over the travel ban, Trump’s legal team argued that the president was not subject to the authority of the court.
“Are we not a Democracy? Even in times of war, courts have reviewed presidential actions,” Ferguson said. “It cannot be the law. I will not allow that to be the law.”
The AG said the lawsuits touch on issues that are important to Washington residents of all backgrounds and political and religious orientations.
“These are really core issues of constitutional limits, presidential authority, who we are as people,” Ferguson said.
With his name in the national spotlight, and his team taking on ever-more ambitious — and highly-publicized — projects, many have speculated that Ferguson wants to run for Governor. In a brief interview before his presentation, Ferguson insisted that winning the state’s highest office is one thing that’s not on his agenda — for the moment.
“I just got re-elected last year. It’s not what I’m focused on. I’ve got a full-time job and full-time 9-year-old twins, so life’s pretty busy,” Ferguson said, laughing. “It’s 2017. If it’s 2019, OK, I’m happy to chat about it.”