MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- A district judge should appoint a new entity to run stop-smoking programs that are funded by Minnesota's 1998 settlement with tobacco companies, the state said Thursday in a court filing.
The motion by Attorney General Mike Hatch's office, filed in Ramsey County District Court, was in response to a reform proposal by the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco. MPAAT is the group that has administered programs aimed at helping Minnesotans to stop smoking.
MPAAT and Hatch have been at odds over the group's performance, and the opinions in the briefing -- based in part on MPAAT documents recently made public -- indicate Hatch hasn't changed his mind about seeing MPAAT pushed aside.
"(MPAAT) has proposed begrudging, lackluster, and minimalistic changes, while at the same time spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of settlement funds to 'spin' the media, the public, and the Court into believing that it has been a prudent court officer," the state's filing said.
Hatch sued MPAAT in April, criticizing the group's tactics and priorities. He argued that MPAAT was spending too much money on a political initiative -- trying to persuade communities and workplaces to become smoke-free -- rather than on smoking cessation programs.
In response to an order from Judge Michael Fetsch, which was prompted by Hatch's lawsuit, MPAAT submitted a restructuring plan in September. The organization said it would change its board structure to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest between it and the people to whom it grants money.
It also said it would award $4.7 million to contractors in fiscal 2003 for tobacco-cessation programs to help individual smokers. Those programs would include face-to-face or Internet counseling, in addition to expansion of the tobacco help-line telephone counseling already available.
A court hearing before Fetsch was scheduled for Feb. 20.
MPAAT was founded in the wake of the state's lawsuit against the tobacco industry and funded with a portion of the $6.1 billion settlement. It administers $102 million in funds to help Minnesotans quit smoking and $100 million in funds for research into tobacco-related issues.
Dr. Anne Joseph, a board member of MPAAT who works at the Minneapolis Veterans Administration hospital and the University of Minnesota, said MPAAT believes its reforms address many of Hatch's concerns.
"The most important thing is that we have heard the message about changing some of our direction and have been successful with that," she said, citing the promotion of the telephone help-line, as well as nicotine replacement therapy, which includes distribution of nicotine patches and gum.
As for Hatch's criticism of its public relations effort, she said: "We will review in detail and take the criticism into consideration, but our view is that (public relations) is what we need to get our message out."
The state's opinion, signed by Solicitor General Lori R. Swanson, offered several examples to support the claim that MPAAT is falling short of its mission.
For instance, the state criticized the group for paying a public relations firm $225,000 to draft letters to lawmakers and newspapers that denied any conflicts of interest and accused MPAAT's critics of being beholden to the tobacco industry. The state called such expenditures "incompatible" with MPAAT's role.
The motion also said some recipients of MPAAT grants used the funds for "questionable purposes," such as lobbying against a legislative plan that would shift tobacco settlement money from smoking cessation programs to other various state initiatives.
The state also criticized MPAAT for a recent TV advertisement in which a bald woman, her head partly covered by a cap, sings to her child in an amateur video supposedly being prepared for the child to see years after the woman's death. The ad was criticized because it didn't disclose that the woman was an actress, not a victim of cancer.
The Attorney General's Office provided reporters with two thick binders that included their findings and MPAAT documents. In an interview, Swanson said lawyers found several other examples of questionable practices, including the awarding of grant money to a foundation whose president had been barred by a court from running the foundation for three years.
"We found they weren't carrying out their core principals," she said.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.