By: Chris Allen, Meghan Stoppel, and Ann-Marie Luciano
The National Association of Attorneys General’s biennial Consumer Protection Conference always provides a fascinating deep dive into the minds and priorities of state attorney general consumer protection staff, and of the leaders who run the day-to-day investigations and litigations that most directly impact companies. The May 24, 2022 meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina, attended by representatives from 42 states, DC, and four territories, was no exception.
In this first of four panel discussions held at the 2022 NAAG Spring Conference, three sitting AGs discussed the most pressing and cutting-edge consumer protection issues they are confronting. They also addressed head-on the recent controversial allegations that NAAG has become a partisan institution promoting anti-business litigation, with speakers from both the public and private spheres countering those assertions with specific details on how the states coordinate their activities and how NAAG’s Consumer Protection Committee actually operates.
A bipartisan panel of AGs kicked off the conference by discussing their view of the role of AGs and their specific interests and priorities as their state’s respective chief consumer protection regulators. New Hampshire AG John Formella, Tennessee AG Herbert Slatery, and Illinois AG Kwame Raoul began by each stressing that AGs’ work and cooperation on consumer protection issues transcends party lines.
AG Slatery stressed the concerns AGs have with social media, citing privacy issues with the amount of data collected from users, the potential for social media to develop into real world violence, its impact on children and the potential for exploitation, and increasingly smart and subtle scams targeting elderly and vulnerable users. AG Raoul noted that he intends to focus on consumer protection issues arising from organized retail crime, stating that online markets have an obligation to protect consumers from purchasing products that have been stolen or improperly stored (citing infant formula specifically, given the recent crisis). AG Formella expressed an interest in the role AGs can play in addressing the ever-rising cost of higher education and corresponding student debt, asserting that the focus on debt-forgiveness misses core issues and fundamental flaws in how higher education is structured and that AGs need to be involved in conversations to address those root issues.
Rebutting Anti-Business, Bias Accusations against NAAG
The AGs then turned to recent allegations that NAAG, including its Consumer Protection Committee and various settlement funds, has become a left-leaning promoter of anti-business litigation. Characterizing such claims as “misinformation,” all three AGs stressed that NAAG and its committee chairs have always been bipartisan. They explained that the Consumer Protection Committee—the largest of NAAG’s standing committees—is co-chaired by a Republican (Slatery) and a Democrat (Raoul), and has a bipartisan membership of over 20 AGs. The AGs clarified that NAAG’s professional staff is not involved with choosing targets or running investigations—an allegation described by some as laughable, given the AGs historical resistance to ceding such authority and control.
The AGs explained that NAAG staff plays a key role in helping the states coordinate their activities, while providing much-needed resources to smaller AG offices. The AGs also noted that the consumer protection funds that were established by various settlements are used for training and to provide grants that individual offices from both parties apply for—and that they are expected to repay. As the new Co-Chair of NAAG’s Consumer Protection Committee, but a member since his first term, AG Raoul noted that in a time of increasing ideological division, the Committee is a place where state AGs can collaborate without partisanship.
Gazing Into the Crystal Ball
This insightful panel culminated with the AGs discussing the issues they see looming on the horizon. They noted that inflation remains a major consumer concern and that, even if AGs cannot use price gouging laws to pursue remedies, state consumer protection statutes provide an alternative by prohibiting unfair conduct. The AGs described their relationships with their federal counterparts as positive, noting that some are demonstrating increased respect for the AGs’ collective power and are actively seeking the AGs’ assistance and cooperation. The AGs expressed their unanimous concern and criticism of local cities, counties, and other subdivisions pursuing lawsuits against companies that might also be the subject of ongoing consumer protection investigations (or negotiations), citing to the opioid cases and the disruption caused by outside counsel for the political subdivisions. Each AG expressed the desire for a solution. The panel ended with the AGs reaffirming the importance of NAAG and its role in helping the AGs meet their consumer protection missions.
To read about the other panels at the 2022 NAAG Spring Consumer Protection Conference, go here:
Dark Patterns: The Next UDAP Frontier (Part 2 of 4)
Counting Down the Hits – Top Consumer Complaints (Part 3 of 4)
Meeting of the Minds – Negotiating State AG Settlements (Part 4 of 4)