Tillis took pharmaceutical money within weeks of co-sponsoring new drug price bill

Updated: Sep. 16, 2020 at 6:25 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) – Senator Thom Tillis accepted more than $20,000 in campaign contributions from political action committees tied to pharmaceutical companies within two weeks of sponsoring a bill related to drug prices in late 2019.

Tillis was an original co-sponsor on the Lower Costs, More Cures act, which was introduced on December 19, 2019.

It was similar to a competing bill that had been introduced earlier in the year by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, except that it omitted a key provision opposed by the pharmaceutical industry that would cap drug prices at inflation.

Grassley’s bill had bipartisan support but had stalled in the Senate before Tillis and a group of other Republican senators introduced their proposal on December 19.

Campaign finance records shows Tills received $20,500 in campaign contributions from political action committees tied to pharmaceutical companies in the days before and after the bill was filed; including two contributions totaling $7,000 on December 16 and 18, respectively, and seven contributions totaling $13,500 given on December 20, 26 and 31.

The amount and timing of the contributions seem unusual to Sheila Krumholz, the executive director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, which operates the campaign money-tracking website OpenSecrets.org.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a quid pro quo, it may indicate a cordial relationship they’ve developed over a period of time,” Krumholz said. “But it is worth noting and it doesn’t happen every day.”

Tillis has taken the fourth most campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry in 2020, behind Democrats Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

“I think the fact that he has received so much support from the pharmaceutical industry, from their PAC’s, even despite the fact that he’s not a leader. He didn’t run for the white house like other top recipients, Sanders and Warren," Krumholz said.

“I think that indicates the fact that he is viewed as a very close ally of the industry; that they view him as a very dependable vote in favor of their interest and somebody who, clearly, is willing to champion their legislation, their legislative agenda and I think that is borne out by the pattern of contributions that you examined last December.”

A spokesman in Tillis' Senate office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Andrew Romeo, a spokesman for the Tillis campaign, pushed back on the notion that the bill Tillis co-sponsored was favored by the pharmaceutical industry. In an effort to support his point, he provided WBTV a copy of a statement from PhRMA, the industry lobbying group, that opposed House bill similar to the one Tillis co-sponsored.

Romeo could not, however, provide any evidence to show the industry opposed the bill co-sponsored by Tillis.

WBTV made multiple requests to ask Tillis questions on-camera for this story; all of them were denied.

In his email response for this story, Romeo didn’t provide an explanation for the influx of campaign cash but did attempt to tie this story to the Tillis' re-election opponent, Cal Cunningham.

“Cal Cunningham and his Democratic allies are desperately trying to change the narrative of his willingness to undermine vaccine research,” Romeo said.

WBTV sent its first inquiry for this story prior to Monday night’s debate.

Krumholz, with the Center for Responsive Politics, said contributions like the bundle Tillis received immediately before and after he co-sponsored the bill don’t normally come in late December.

“It is, I think, particularly notable that, in this case, money was given—kind of a good chunk of money—was given in December in an off-election year. That’s unusual timing,” she said.

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