Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser Isn’t Letting Up On Big Tech Monopolies

March 19, 2021
Phil WeiseR, Phil weiserPhil WeiseR, Phil weiserDavid Zalubowski/AP
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser plans to make a concentrated push for antitrust enforcement of big tech.

When Weiser testifies before the House Judiciary Committee about big tech monopolies, he plans to make the argument that no single company should have so much control over the market.

“Consumers want choice in the marketplace. They don’t want a single firm having a chokehold in the market,” he told Colorado Matters. “And Google, in internet search and search advertising and Facebook in personal social networking, those are the only games in town, basically, for people.”

Now that there is a new administration in the White House, Weiser said he will still fight to protect Colorado and defend the rule of law, though he expects that role to be less adversarial to the federal government than it was under former President Donald Trump. 

“There were times in the Trump administration with different agencies, I was able to collaborate to solve problems, but it was more the exception than the rule,” he said. “I think we’re going to see more of an openness to doing that. And this is something that I hope is going to be a general tone of taking states seriously as problem solvers and a real dialogue as we work to solve problems.”


Interview Highlights:

On the state of lawsuits against the former presidential administration:

“The court system does not move rapidly. And so these lawsuits in many situations are ongoing and there’ll have to be a process of winding them down. So we’ve challenged moves … that hurt Colorado, that hurt our sovereignty, our ability to protect our land, air and water. We believe we’re on the right side of the law. We’re protecting Colorado and we believe the new administration understands that. But, unfortunately, they’re still getting people appointed. They’re going to have to get involved in cases. And so each of these cases is different, but in most of these cases, they’re still ongoing.”

On the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy settlement:

“The Sackler family has pulled out many billions of dollars from Purdue Pharma, money that was made in what the Department of Justice has called a criminal enterprise that engaged in crimes. Money that has contributed to people’s lives being destroyed. The pushing out of Oxycontin, which fueled this opioid crisis in Colorado is destroying lives. It’s destroying communities and we’re going to work hard to get a fair settlement so that we can help support drug treatment, drug recovery and education prevention programs. This settlement is not to my mind fair. The Sackler family is going to keep billions and billions of dollars. We believe they should be contributing more and they shouldn’t be getting in effect an immunization. They’re going to be free from any more liability, because they’re trying to cram this down. We’re going to fight for a fair result.”

On implementing Colorado’s police reforms:

“We’re working hard to implement this Senate Bill 217. It was one of the first such measures that was passed after the murder of George Floyd. It was something that Colorado worked hard to do in our Colorado way. It was collaborative with law enforcement, bipartisan effort. We in the Department of Law here oversee the peace officer standards and training program, which means when it comes to both police training and the police accountability measures, we have a critical role. We’re working to develop rules to use the authority that we got under this new law. We’re working to develop new training to address issues to prevent undue escalation of incidents with police and community members. And we’ve actually already de-certified law enforcement officers who’ve been untruthful.”

Read The Transcript

Avery Lill: Colorado attorney general, Phil Weiser spent the past two years fighting the federal government on a myriad of environmental issues. But now the Trump administration is out, what happens next. And what are the issues that the state still faces under a Biden administration? Attorney General Weiser welcome.

Phil Weiser: Great to be with you.

AL: The previous presidential administration rolled back a lot of environmental regulations. It revoked states' authorities to set vehicle emissions standards, rolled back national fuel efficiency standards, removed federal protections from some streams and wetlands. Since you became attorney general in 2019, you've challenged the Trump administration over these moves. What is the status of these lawsuits now that Trump is no longer in office?

PW: So [inaudible 00:00:45] the court system does not move rapidly. And so these lawsuits in many situations are ongoing and they'll have to be a process of winding them down. So we've challenged moves you've mentioned that her Colorado that hurt our sovereignty, our ability to protect our land, air, and water. We believe we're on the right side of the law. We're protecting Colorado and we believe the new administration understands that. But unfortunately, they're still getting people appointed. They're going to have to get involved in cases. And so each of these cases is different, but in most of these cases, they're still ongoing.

AL: What will life in Colorado's justice department look like under the Biden administration, do you think?

PW: My broad standard is the same standard, which is I want to collaborate to protect Colorado and to defend the rule of law. I believe the posture of the Biden ministration is going to be much more open to that collaboration. There were times in the Trump administration with different agencies, I was able to collaborate to solve problems, but it was more the exception than the rule. I think we're going to see more of an openness to doing that. And this is something that I hope is going to be a general tone of taking state seriously as problem solvers and a real dialogue as we work to solve problems.

AL: Another issue that has made headlines nationally and affects Colorado, two days ago, you released a statement expressing disappointment in the settlement of the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy case. In the settlement, members of the Sackler family who were in charge of Purdue will pay out $4.3 billion over nine years toward opioid addiction treatment. What do you find disappointing about this settlement?

PW: The Sackler family has pulled out many billions of dollars from Purdue Pharma, money that was made in what the Department of Justice has called a criminal enterprise that engaged in crimes. Money that has contributed to people's lives being destroyed. The pushing out of Oxycontin, which fueled this opioid crisis in Colorado is destroying lives. It's destroying communities and we're going to work hard to get a fair settlement so that we can help support drug treatment, drug recovery, and education prevention programs. This settlement is not to my mind fair. The Sackler family is going to keep billions and billions of dollars. We believe they should be contributing more and they shouldn't be getting in effect a immunization. They're going to be free from any more liability, because they're trying to cram this down. We're going to fight for a fair result.

AL: In your view, what is a fair result or a fair settlement?

PW: So, we're still negotiating that out. And we want to make sure to get as fair result as possible. We recognize in this case, there's some states who've already said they would accept this amount. The money has risen, the offer since that agreement by some of these settling states, but I'm part of a coalition of states fighting for more. So we're going to keep pushing to get more, to improve this deal so that people of Colorado can at least get some measure of appropriate compensation. There are people whose lives have been destroyed. We don't have enough support for drug treatment and recovery programs as is. We want to make sure the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma pay their fair share towards this critically important goal.

AL: So, it sounds like to you fairer means more money.

PW: More money.

AL: How much money would Colorado potentially see from the settlement as it is? And would that go toward opioid addiction treatment?

PW: Yes, the true North here is that all the money that we get from these cases, this is not the only case. We already have a settlement with McKinsey. It was a 575 or so, million dollar settlement where Colorado is going to end up getting $10 million from that. So, you can do the math here. This is going to be probably orders of magnitude larger than McKinsey settlement. So it would bring significant funds to Colorado. And as you said, all the money is going to go to how we abate this crisis, which is drug treatment. We have at most 20% of the drug treatment capacity we need for this crisis. And we saw more overdose deaths in 2020 of drugs, mostly opioids than ever before. And all of us know people who have lost lives, whose families have been harmed and individuals whose potential has been stymied because they get addicted. And then that addiction takes over their lives.

AL: Another issue that has become especially pertinent during the pandemic. Earlier this month, you announced that the Justice Department would begin investigating cases of unemployment fraud in the state, in conjunction with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Labor and Employment. But CPRS, Andrew Kenny found in his reporting that the crack down on unemployment fraud has made things difficult and delayed payments for people who legitimately need unemployment insurance. How do you thread the needle?

PW: This is an important and challenging administrative issue that the Department of Labor and Employment is working through, which is how do they create the right protection so that fraudulent actors aren't getting checks, but how do you not prevent people who need money from getting it? That is something they are working through to figure out the right protocols, the right systems to move quickly. Where we fit in is where someone has been the victim of a fraud. Someone has filed for unemployment insurance in their name. We want to try to figure out who those people are, and we want to crack down to go after them, hold them accountable. This is a terrible thing to do, to take someone's identity, try to use it to make a quick buck.

And if we can find people who are doing that, and this is why we set up a statewide taskforce to work with district attorney's offices, Colorado Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Labor and Employment. Because we want to go after these people. The other thing that we're focused on is a lot of the individuals who are victims here may not have realized that their identity has been compromised. Because of data breaches like Equifax, your information is probably out there. And if you have one of these frauds in your name, that means someone's got access to your data and is using it against you. We put out identity theft, repair kit on our website, stopfraudcolorado.gov, where you can learn more about how to protect yourself.

AL: Let's move on to the police reform and issues of racial justice. Last year, the Colorado general assembly passed a police reform law that required the use of body cams and outlawed the choke-hold among other items. How has the training been going?

PW: We're working hard to implement this Senate Bill 217. It was one of the first such measures that was passed after the murder of George Floyd. It was something that Colorado worked hard to do in our Colorado way. It was collaborative with law enforcement, bipartisan effort. We in the Department of Law here oversee the peace officer standards and training program, which means when it comes to both police training and the police accountability measures, we have a critical role. We're working to develop rules to use the authority that we got under this new law. We're working to develop new training to address issues to prevent undo escalation of incidents with police and community members. And we've actually already de-certified law enforcement officers who've been untruthful.

That's a new law that was passed actually a little bit before the Senate Bill 217, part of the same effort. We need to make sure that we can build trust in law enforcement. And we in Colorado have a robust program to do so.

AL: Is the Justice Department taking more steps for more transparency about police training?

PW: Yes. We're working hard to be able to articulate what our overall agenda to police training is. And it's an important point because we have an agenda that we think we can really transform and re-imagine police training, starting with the academies. Something that the legislature has given us funding to do is create a job task analysis, which means what are the core competencies of being an effective police officer? How do you make ethical and sound decisions under stress? Or use another word. People talk about how do you have emotional intelligence so that when you're in difficult situations you make the right decisions. We're going to work on building a modern curriculum that is going to effectively train law enforcement here in Colorado. That's going to take some time.

We're going to need community engagement and we're going to work with all the police academies in Colorado. And we've got a whole bunch of them.

AL: You launched a grand jury investigation after the death of Elijah McClain in police custody last summer. Can you give us any updates on that investigation?

PW: Unfortunately, there's not a lot I can say. The way the grand jury process works is that we are working with the grand jury. And until the decision comes back, the process itself is governed by secrecy. So it is ongoing, is what I can say and that when I'm able to make any announcements about it and provide additional information, I will do so.

AL: And are there any updates on the timeline you could give us?

PW: Unfortunately, I can't. The process needs to take whatever time that it takes. We routinely don't comment on pending matters. And this is a notable such case where there's actually additional limits on what we can say. We also have a pattern and practice investigation going for the city of Aurora. That's a civil rights investigation using the authority we got under that Senate Bill 217 that you referred to earlier. That's a parallel investigation, which is more broader in terms of systemically how has the city of Aurora handled civil rights issues.

AL: Coming up, you're going to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on big tech monopolies. Will you be pushing for antitrust enforcement for these companies?

PW: Absolutely. What I have seen and what I have heard from consumers all around Colorado and innovators here is that we have a very concentrated marketplace in a number of industries. Big tech is one of them. And when you have a firm that is dominant and has the ability to exclude competitors, that's bad for consumers. Consumers want choice in the marketplace. They don't want a single firm having a choke hold in the market. And Google, in internet search and search advertising and Facebook in personal social networking, those are the only games in town, basically for people. And when you look closely over the last decade at the conduct of both firms, what you see is a pattern of what economists would call predatory action, which is not competing on the merits, but undermining rival's ability to compete.

And in our complaint, in both cases, we've worked hard on both these cases. We lay out what this story is. That's something I'll share with the members of the Antitrust Sub-committee, which included Colorado's Joe Neguse and Ken Buck, both of whom have been really committed to sound antitrust enforcement. We have to recognize at this point in our nation's history, we need more antitrust enforcement. We need more robust competition policy because we're seeing more concentrated markets and more dominant firms being able to exclude rivals and hurt consumers.

AL: Do you foresee more regulations on big tech companies coming down?

PW: I believe we're likely to see both robust antitrust enforcement and there's going to be, and should be more regulatory oversight. That regular oversight will protect for example, consumers' privacy. We all have our information out there being used and in some cases abused without our knowledge. We deserve what President Obama calls for almost a decade ago, a privacy bill of rights. So we have more control over our own data. We also deserve more competition. And if you can have regulations like data portability, you can bring your data from one platform to another that can enable competition. So I do believe we should be seeing more protections in this technology world where so many of us are living. And that's going to take leadership on the federal level. I'm game to work with leaders like Congressman Joe Neguse and Ken Buck to make progress.

AL: Another issue of importance. There has been an uptick in hate crimes against Asian-Americans since the onset of the pandemic. How can you address this issue?

PW: We've talked a little bit about police training. And one of the things that we did early in my tenure is create a partnership with the Anti-Defamation League to create new police training around hate crimes, investigation, and reporting. We need transparency on what's happening because we've seen rising incidents of hate crimes over the last several years, and it affects all of us. And secondly, part of what I feel an obligation as a public official is to communicate a basic message. A hate crime against any one of us is a hate crime against all of us. The American motto, the American way is e pluribus unum, from many, one. And that's what we need to be. So we're all Asian-Americans this week in solidarity with the community that has been feeling under attack, hurt and suffering. We need that spirit here in America, and we have it here in Colorado.

AL: Phil Weiser, we will have to wrap up there. Thank you very much.

PW: Pleasure to join you. Thanks for the time.

AL: Phil Weiser is the Colorado attorney general. This is Colorado matters from CPR news.