COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – The state-established nonprofit overseeing $440 million in opioid settlement funds must publicize its records, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

In a unanimous decision, the Court ordered the OneOhio Recovery Foundation – a 29-member organization tasked with distributing more than half of the state’s $808 million opioid settlement fund – to make its records available to the public.

“People are entitled, especially the impacted population who have been hurt by opioids, are entitled to know how the money is being spent. And it just can’t be secret; it’s government money spent by government officials,” said Dennis Cauchon, president of the overdose prevention nonprofit Harm Reduction Ohio.

A former journalist, Cauchon sued OneOhio in August 2022 after the Foundation stonewalled two of his requests: First, to attend its board of directors meeting, which he was told was not open to the public; and second, for a copy of the meeting’s minutes, according to court documents. The foundation did not respond to the latter request.

OneOhio argued that as a private, nonprofit corporation, it was not subject to the state’s Public Records Act and thus not required to fulfill Cauchon’s requests. The Court disagreed, writing in its opinion that the foundation “misstates its function.”

The group’s “true function,” the Court said, is to dish out dollars dedicated for public use, and thus, as a “functional equivalent of a public office,” it must abide by the Ohio Public Records Act.

“The decision doesn’t change things,” OneOhio spokesperson Connie Luck said in an email. “Consistent with its mission, the Foundation operates in a transparent fashion and will continue to do so.”

In 2021, local governments suing the nation’s three largest opioid distributors – Carindal, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen – signed a memorandum of understanding with Gov. Mike DeWine and Attorney General Dave Yost that set the standards for allocating $808 million in opioid settlement funds awarded to Ohio.

As part of the understanding, OneOhio received 55% of the settlement funds to distribute across the Buckeye State, with 30% going to local governments and the remaining 15% to the state, according to a copy of the memo.

The memo also outlines what the $808 million can be used for, including but not limited to overdose-reversing medication, addiction recovery services, treatment for incarcerated people with opioid use disorder and prevention programs.

Of the 29 members on OneOhio’s governing board, five members – and its executive director – are appointed by Gov. Mike DeWine, one member by Attorney General Dave Yost and four members by the state legislature. The remaining 19 positions are held by members appointed by their respective metropolitan or non-metropolitan region in Ohio, as divided up by the Foundation.

Dan Tierney, a spokesperson for DeWine’s office, declined to comment on the Court’s ruling. Yost’s office did not immediately respond to an inquiry from NBC4.

Cauchon, whose organization is the largest distributor of the overdose reversal drug Narcan, or naloxone, in Ohio, said the Court’s ruling opens the door for providing a seat at the table for those directly affected by the opioid crisis.

“I think that (for) OneOhio, it’s their lucky day that they lost this suit because they will perform better by having the public involved, the public knowing what’s going on,” Cauchon said.

The Court’s ruling comes after Franklin County Judge Mark Serrott made a similar decision in March, describing OneOhio’s argument that it constitutes a private entity as “disingenuous.” Serrott ruled in Harm Reduction Ohio’s favor: OneOhio must abide by Ohio’s Open Meetings Act, meaning all its meetings must be open to the public, he wrote in his opinion.

As a result of Serrott’s ruling, Cauchon said OneOhio held its first public meeting on Wednesday. And it went smoothly, he argued.

“I think what they found – it was fine. There were no tornadoes or riots, just the public got to see what they were doing. So I don’t know what they’re afraid of,” he said. “And it’s the same thing with public records — we’ll get to see how they’re spending their money and what they plan to do.”