LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The state attorney general on Tuesday sought permission to launch a criminal investigation into a Massachusetts pharmaceutical company linked to a deadly outbreak of meningitis, saying Michigan was at the "epicenter" of pain and death in the case.
Bill Schuette filed a request with the Michigan Court of Appeals for a rare, four-county grand jury to conduct a confidential probe into the New England Compounding Center, the company already accused in dozens of civil lawsuits of producing contaminated steroids that killed 51 people nationwide and sickened more than 700.
If the court agrees to an investigation, a jury of citizens in one of the counties would decide if criminal charges should be brought.
"Michigan is at the epicenter of this national meningitis tragedy," Schuette said during a news conference at his office in Lansing. "We will find the truth and bring to justice those who may have broken the law."
The number of Michigan residents infected — 259 at last count, 17 who died — is "brutal," he said.
A grand jury can subpoena witnesses and compel testimony under oath, while state investigators do not have that power. Schuette said a grand jury investigation could unlock the "secrecy" surrounding the company's management, the Michigan facilities where the steroid shots were injected and the identity of specific individuals responsible.
He said it is a crime to knowingly or recklessly sell or manufacturer an adulterated drug and that anyone convicted on that charge could face up to 15 years in prison.
In the petition to the appeals court, the state said there is probable cause to believe that New England Compounding Center distributed tainted drugs to Michigan counties and that it "knew or had reason to know that the adulterated drugs could cause great bodily harm or death."
A message seeking comment was left Tuesday with a spokesman for the company based in Framingham, Mass.
Michigan's criminal probe of the outbreak could be the first state-level investigation of its kind. Federal officials have opened a criminal probe into the company and its owner.
Schuette said the "broad" probe would focus on the company along with four clinics in Genesee, Grand Traverse, Livingston and Macomb counties that administered the contaminated drug that was supposed to ease pain.
He did not rule out approaching other states, though typically state attorneys general coordinate more on civil — not criminal — cases.
The outbreak of meningitis, an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, was discovered in Tennessee in September. New England Compounding Center filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December.
Of the 17 Michigan residents who died, 14 were treated in the state. The other three received the steroid injections in Indiana.
If a three-judge panel on the appeals court orders a grand jury probe, it would choose a circuit judge in Genesee, Grand Traverse, Livingston or Macomb counties to run it. Thirteen to 18 people would sit on the jury, and someone from the attorney general's office would serve as the prosecutor.
"This is an extraordinary situation," said Schuette, a former appeals court judge. "I'm confident the Michigan Court of Appeals will make the correct decision."
The appeals court has no deadline to make a decision. The last time such a request was made was 2005, when Attorney General Mike Cox unsuccessfully sought a multi-county grand jury probe of trial lawyer Geoffrey Fieger's financing of campaign ads against a Supreme Court justice.
Email David Eggert at deggert(at)ap.org and follow him at http://twitter.com/DavidEggert00