May 30 5:47 PM

Texas AG flip-flops on execution drug secrecy

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott speaks during a Houston campaign appearance July 15, 2013.
Pat Sullivan/AP

Texas will be allowed to keep secret the names of the suppliers of lethal drugs used in its executions. The decision, made late Thursday by the state’s Attorney General, Greg Abbott, stands as a noticeable reversal of policy for the state’s top prosecutor.

States have turned to so-called compounding pharmacies in recent years, as drugs used in lethal injection executions have become increasingly hard to obtain. Domestic production of the pharmaceuticals has ceased, and European suppliers refuse to allow their drugs to be used to kill prisoners.

The loosely regulated compounding pharmacies blend a wide variety of specialty drugs for a number of purposes, and some have run into trouble in recent years for harming and killing patients with tainted and improperly dosed mixtures. Compounding new lethal injection cocktails has proven a lucrative business for a few of these companies, but, needless to say, most would not like their brands publicly linked to killing people.

Opponents of the death penalty, however, have sued in several states to uncover the compounding pharmacies behind the execution drugs and reveal what drugs are in their lethal concoctions, saying it is important in ensuring the condemned do not suffer constitutionally prohibited cruel and unusual punishment.

Abbott, who has been the Texas AG since 2010 has had a track record of going after compounding pharmacies in past cases, and has on three previous occasions ruled the Texas open-records law required the state to reveal its suppliers of lethal pharmaceuticals.

But Abbott did a complete about-face Thursday, declaring the compounding pharmacies had a valid claim to anonymity based on “a substantial threat of physical harm.” That threat assessment, according to the AG’s office, is based on one letter containing one threat they said needed to be taken seriously.

The AG’s office did not disclose the nature of the threat, and the state’s Department of Public Safety said it was unaware of any investigation into any threats against the Texas compounding pharmacy in question.

What might explain Abbott’s sudden change of heart?

Greg Abbott is not just the sitting AG, he is also the Republican nominee for governor (he will face off against Democrat Wendy Davis in November). And Abbott has received campaign contributions totaling $350,000 from J. Richard “Richie” Ray, the owner of a Texas compounding pharmacy, and a prominent member of a number of compounding pharmacy industry trade groups.

Ray’s company, Richie’s Specialty Pharmacy, is not supplying execution drugs to Texas because the lab is not certified as sterile, but he is a member of a group that owns one of the labs that tests compounded drugs for the state, and in the midst of last year’s controversy about the state’s previous supplier of killing cocktails, Ray began showering Abbott with cash. (Ray is not known as a really big spender by Texas political standards. By contrast, Ray only gave current Republican governor Rick Perry $40,000 for his campaigns.)

Ray also fights tougher regulation of compounding pharmacies in general as director of the Texas Pharmacy Association PAC and chairman of the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists' federal PAC.

The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether the myriad of experimental execution mixtures violate the high court’s earlier decision that a very specific three-drug cocktail was the only one that didn’t run afoul of the “cruel and unusual” standard.

But in Texas, the guy who makes the rules is running for governor, and he’s got a campaign to finance.


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