Publix versus the public
Elected officials should not do the bidding of corporate donors; they should act in the best interests of their constituents. It is often difficult, however, to prove a politician's motivation. A politician can generally claim that an act or omission that benefits a corporate donor is also in the best interest of their constituents. But powerful politicians in Florida are acting in a manner that is extremely difficult to justify.
In the early 2000s, powerful opioids like oxycodone were being widely abused in Florida and across the country, and addicts were routinely obtaining prescriptions from unscrupulous doctors. But from 2011 to 2019, the number of opioid prescriptions dispensed by pharmacies in Florida declined by 56%. Pharmacy chains, facing criticism and lawsuits, began to scrutinize prescriptions a bit more carefully.
There was an exception. KFF Health News reports that Publix, a large supermarket chain that operates in the Southeast, increased the amount of oxycodone sold from 26 million pills in 2011 to 43.5 million pills in 2019. Compared to other pharmacies, Publix was filling a disproportionate number of prescriptions of high-strength oxycodone pills, which are particularly susceptible to abuse. By 2019, Publix became the second-largest distributor of oxycodone in Florida, surpassing CVS and trailing only Walgreens. Publix allegedly "filled prescriptions from 'cash-only' pain clinics or written by physicians located hundreds of miles away with no license to practice in Florida."
In November 2018, then-Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R), sued CVS and Walgreens. In the complaint, Florida accuses CVS and Walgreens of violating "their duties under state law" to "to take special care before dispensing these addictive and dangerous drugs." The complaint noted that CVS and Walgreens were "dispensing extremely large amounts of opioids from their retail pharmacy stores in Florida." The lawsuit alleged that CVS and Walgreens "joined the race to sell as many opioids as possible, including by failing to institute safeguards and by marketing opioids to their vast networks of retail pharmacy stores and in-store pharmacists."
By 2018, Publix was selling just as many opioid prescriptions in Florida as CVS. And yet, Publix was not named in the lawsuit.
Ashley Moody (R) became Florida's Attorney General in 2019. In 2022, Walgreens and CVS settled with the Attorney General's office, paying the state $440 million and $630 million, respectively. In 2022, Moody also negotiated a $215 million settlement with Walmart, which is a major supplier of prescription drugs in the state, even though Florida never formally filed suit against the company. Under the terms of the settlements, the companies "must pay for community treatment, education, and prevention programs, plus litigation costs."
Publix sold roughly twice as much oxycodone as Walmart in Florida. But there is no mention of Publix on Moody's website about opioid settlements. In response to an inquiry from KFF Health News, Moody's office did not directly address why Publix has been given a free pass.
"We are proud of the more than $3 billion recovered through the historic opioid litigation, and since the filing of the amended complaint, the Department of Legal Affairs has and will continue to take action when merited by the evidence," Moody's office said in a statement. Publix has been sued by other state and local governments, including 20 localities in Florida.
So why have CVS and Walgreens been treated so much differently than Publix by the state of Florida? Let's follow the money. Between 2016 and 2022, Publix has doled out $10.6 million to Florida politicians, most of which has gone to Republicans, including $125,000 directly to Moody. Over the same time period, Walgreens donated $637,000 to politicians in Florida, including $8,000 to Moody. CVS donated $208,500, with nothing going to Moody.
While $10.6 million is a lot of money, it pales in comparison to the monetary settlements that Florida has been able to extract from pharmacy chains that have engaged in similar conduct.
The Publix money hose
Publix intensified its political giving dramatically last year. In 2023, Publix donated $3.2 million to Florida politicians, Jason Gore reports in Seeking Rents. The amount is roughly double what Publix spent in 2021. It makes Publix the top corporate political donor in the state, excluding "Trulieve, which is financing a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize recreational marijuana" in Florida.
Publix has been particularly generous with powerful Republican officeholders, including $200,000 to incoming House Speaker Danny Perez (R) and $100,000 to incoming Senate President Ben Albritton (R).
"The issues addressed by our elected officials…are simply too important for us to remain on the sidelines," a spokesperson for Publix told Gore. What are the issues that Publix is concerned about? The spokesperson declined to specify.
Publix direct donations understate the company's influence on Florida Republican politics. Julie Jenkins Fancelli, the heiress to the Publix fortune, is not involved in the company's day-to-day operations. But Fancelli derives her wealth from Publix and is a major Republican donor in Florida and around the country.
She also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the organizers of the "Stop the Steal" rally in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021. This included $150,000 to the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), which used the funds to send robocalls to help build the mob. The robocalls were sent by a RAGA subsidiary, the Rule of Law Foundation. Moody served on the board of the Rule of Law Foundation. After the January 6 riot, she scrubbed the connection from her website.