Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser thinks of his office as “the lawyer for the people.”
Since assuming the AG position in January, Weiser, a Democrat, has been meeting with people around the state to hear their concerns.
Weiser sat down with representatives of Colorado Publishing House, the parent company of the Colorado Springs Business Journal, April 11 during a swing through El Paso County for a wide-ranging talk about his priorities and goals.
Here are excerpts from that interview.
What are your top priorities?
One of my top priorities is improving our criminal justice system so it works better, to both protect the public and to be fair to defendants, giving people an opportunity, as opposed to making the system, let’s say, overly punitive and, in some cases, a source of injustice. One of my priorities this session, which we’re working on legislatively, is bail reform. … Related to that is this diversion program concept that Teen Court has done extremely well. One of my goals is to help support more diversion programs across the state, particularly for juveniles. …
Another one is the opioid epidemic, and we’re looking at this issue through a number of lenses. We lead a substance abuse trend and response task force. We also want to help create more drug treatment; we have about 30 percent of the drug treatment in Colorado that we need. One tool we have is a lawsuit we’re bringing against Purdue Pharma [maker of Oxycontin]. Oklahoma just settled their lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, and it was north of $200 million. … Our goal will be to get the money, whether it’s from a litigated judgment or settlement, and turn that into some direct treatment.
Two other things … are on my to-do list. One is consumer protection. There are more and more ways in which people are worried about how they’re being treated. Internet privacy and data security … is an area that we are going to be vigilant protecting consumers on. I’ve been speaking on robocalls and meeting on the national front to get legislation to give us better tools to address robocalls, and we’re going to work hard on a range of scams that are facing consumers. I’m also in the legislature asking for more authority, because some of the parts of our current law have been implemented and interpreted in ways that make it harder for us to make these cases than I believe it should. … And we don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, I can just violate the law and pay a fine.’ It’s costing businesses; we want people to know we’re serious. And if you’re an irresponsible company, cheating consumers, you’re going to be held accountable.
And finally, protecting our land and water is really important, with a range of different tools that we’re going to be working on.
Talk a little bit about what you view as the attorney general’s role.
I’ve offered testimony, either in person or by a letter, on four separate issues, all of which fit in our core priorities. … If I see solutions to help protect consumers, improve criminal justice, protect our land and water, address the opioid epidemic, I view it as my responsibility to share those ideas and to be a part of legislation. And this is going to be a core part of what we do … .
I don’t view my job as I wait till someone sues the state and I defend it, or I wait till I’m forced to act. I want us to be always on the lookout as a watchdog. If there’s areas that we can help improve, we should figure out how to take such action. In some cases, it will be bringing lawsuits against irresponsible companies. One of the early ones I settled was involving Fiat and Chrysler, which lied to people about their diesel emissions — claiming that they were low emissions, but they weren’t. I believe strongly in a positive business environment where responsible businesses are celebrated. And those who are irresponsible companies, who lie and cheat, need to be held accountable. If you don’t hold accountable irresponsible companies, you’re putting the responsible at a disadvantage.
One of your campaign planks was supporting entrepreneurs and reducing barriers to new businesses coming into Colorado. What steps are you taking to accomplish those goals?
This is part of who I am, and so it actually comes very naturally. I am the founder and remain a leader in Startup Colorado. One of the things that’s a special sauce is that we have a strong network of mentors supporting each other. And I want to make sure that network extends across the whole state of Colorado. So one important plank for me on this is making sure that we support an environment where mentors across our state are helping to support emerging-growth businesses. …
A second point is we need to work with communities that don’t have broadband infrastructure and to help make sure that they get the infrastructure they need to start companies from anywhere. This is super important in a lot of parts of our state, where we need more broadband infrastructure.
And then part of what I’m going to be able to do as an elected official is represent Colorado and why it’s a great place to do business. And part of why it’s a great place to do business is there is this real ethos of ‘We’re in this together to help support each other.’ That’s something that I have lived in that community my whole career, and I’m going to make sure to help articulate and get the word out.
And then finally, I’m going to be an advocate when people in business say there’s this regulatory process that is inefficient or slow moving. We’re going to take that very seriously and want to look at it and say how can we do this better because we have certain goals, protecting public health, for example. I want us to do it in the smartest way possible that has the least negative impact on business.
How are you approaching the business of legal marijuana in terms of Colorado sovereignty and protecting consumers, and regulating medical and recreational marijuana businesses?
First, we are not going to allow the feds to tell us what to do. This is an important principle. I feel it for marijuana, I feel it for immigration, I feel it for sports gambling. If the federal government tries to commandeer state and local law enforcement and tell them to act a certain way, I’m going to tell them, you just violated the 10th Amendment. I’m not going to allow it. So protecting our sovereignty is a principle for me, and it cuts across many issues.
Part of what we have to do is develop a more effective regulatory framework that tells business what they have to do. Labeling, for example — we need clear rules articulated; then we can enforce them effectively.
There is an issue with black market marijuana. … We’ll take those complaints seriously as well.
Could you talk a little bit more about consumer protection? We need to stop spoofing and help consumers avoid scams, but we don’t want to interfere with the ability of businesses to do legitimate marketing. So how do you balance these two things?
This is exactly what our challenge is. We need to work with legitimate businesses. We need to listen to them, we need to give them guidance about what, for example, reasonable data security measures involve. And when businesses act in ways that harm consumers, they act without taking appropriate protections, they need to be told that’s wrong. Equifax is a good example. It’s pretty clear that Equifax was failing to protect critical data they had an obligation to protect — they will be held accountable for that.
We have a two-pronged approach here. One is consumer education and business education. We have this new law that was passed involving data security that’s going to be a core part of what we do. The second part is law enforcement. When people violate the law, and it’s clear they’re doing so in a way that’s trying to gain an unfair advantage on the responsible businesses. We can’t let them get away with that.
How do you balance protecting our environment with making sure that businesses are not overly burdened with regulatory issues?
A big part of this is, indeed, believing in dialogue. Whenever we’re looking at a regulatory issue, we need to do the hard work of collaborative problem solving. The methane rule was adopted by bringing together people in industry, people in the environmental community. They developed a solution that we adopted here in Colorado, and then the [Environmental Protection Agency] took our Colorado solution and made it a protection for the whole nation. Unfortunately, [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator] Scott Pruitt didn’t believe in that; he sought to undermine that methane rule. We’re going to work to overturn that in court. … We just have this record in Colorado of being smart, innovative and collaborative in how we develop public policy, whether it’s methane, whether it’s data security, and that’s going to be my true north.
What do you hope to accomplish by the end of next year?
I want to have developed as effective a plan as we can on this opioid epidemic, particularly with an eye to, once we win this lawsuit, how can we use those funds most effectively to catalyze sustainable drug treatment? I want to improve the consumer protection infrastructure. Right now … we’re not operating as quickly and effectively using technology. I believe we will have won some of these important lawsuits like the ones on the Affordable Care Act and the border wall. And I believe we will have set up a team that will have the right culture and the right mindset that we are engaged as the lawyer for the people of Colorado to go listen to and then tackle critically important priorities. I’m taking a lot of time early on to build that team, infrastructure, culture and mindset. This office can do really important work for the people of Colorado. We have developed our overall vision statement for the office, which we haven’t released it publicly yet. But I’m going to tell you what it is right now: Together we serve the people of Colorado, advancing the rule of law, protecting our democracy and promoting justice for all.