By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The U.S. attorney’s office in Nebraska is reviewing allegations by a civil liberties group that state officials are trying to violate federal law through their attempts to import lethal injection drugs.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska obtained emails and other documents through a public records request and sent a letter Thursday to U.S. Attorney Deborah Gilg arguing that state officials are actively pursuing the drugs despite warnings from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that they can’t be legally imported. Amy Miller, the group’s legal director, pointed to a 2012 incident where execution drugs had to be seized because they were shipped to the state illegally from India.
“Given the state’s concrete and active efforts to violate federal law, we request your office initiate an investigation,” Miller said in the letter.
Federal attorneys are looking over the documents, a spokesman for Gilg said Thursday. Jan Sharp, the U.S. attorney’s Criminal Division chief in Omaha, said attorneys need time to review the papers but should decide by next week whether to act.
“Like any correspondence that comes in, we take it seriously,” Sharp said. “...We don’t disregard anything that gets sent to us. Whether or not we pick up and run with it is left to a prosecutor’s discretion.”
Gov. Pete Ricketts has said state officials are working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to import the required drugs - sodium thiopental and pancuronium bromide - so the state can resume executions. But Nebraska lawmakers passed a bill that abolished the death penalty and overrode the governor’s veto of the measure. Nebraska currently has 10 men on death row, and the state’s last execution was in 1997.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has said Nebraska is legally registered to import drugs, but can be blocked from doing so if other federal agencies object. In a July 13 letter to Nebraska corrections director Scott Frakes, a DEA administrator said the FDA raised legal concerns about the state’s effort.
“According to the FDA, there is no approved application for sodium thiopental, and it is illegal to import an unapproved drug into the United States,” wrote Joseph Rannazzisi, a deputy assistant administrator within the agency.
In responding to the ACLU’s allegations, Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage referenced a possible 2016 ballot initiative that would reinstate the death penalty. The group Nebraskans for the Death Penalty has until Aug. 27 to gather enough signatures for a statewide ballot measure.
“The ACLU is clearly aligned with the side of the ballot initiative that does not want to give the voters of Nebraska a say on the death penalty - their letter should be viewed in that light,” Gage said.
ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Danielle Conrad said the state should abandon its efforts to obtain the drugs and request a refund for the “over $50,000 of taxpayer funds” used to purchase the drugs in 2012.