For 20 years, the Democrat-controlled Legislature gave former Attorney General Darrell McGraw free rein to run the office in the most unprincipled manner possible.
Whether they were afraid of him or did not want to make waves in a political sea, lawmakers sat on their hands while McGraw ran the office as his own personal fiefdom, allowing him to routinely hire outside lawyers, mostly ones who donated to his election campaigns, to handle lawsuits he filed on behalf of the state.
Many of those cases were settled with extremely lucrative monetary awards, along with hefty attorney fees that went into the pockets of the lawyers McGraw hired.
And lawmakers certainly sat on their hands during the unsuccessful attempts by Republicans in the Legislature to have those huge awards placed in the state budget where they would be under the control of 134 elected senators and delegates. The Legislature allowed one man, McGraw, to divvy the money in ways intended to keep him in office as much as it benefited any groups who may have been fortunate enough to receive funding.
But the voters in 2012 did what the legislators would not. They voted the Democrat McGraw out of office and elected the Republican Patrick Morrisey. Morrisey almost immediately instituted reforms, not the least of which were changes in how outside attorneys are hired and that settlements won by the office go into the budget under the Legislature’s control.
Now politically motivated members of the House of Delegates claim they see potential ethics violations in the attorney general’s office at every turn and they are moving at lightning speed to address it.
On Monday, the House Judiciary Committee passed by a vote of 13-7 and sent to the full House the Attorney General Ethics and Accountability Act. Among other things, the bill bars the attorney general from overseeing lawsuits filed by his office against companies or individuals who contribute to his election campaigns. It also gives all settlement money to the Legislature for distribution – something Morrisey campaigned on doing – and sets rules for the hiring of outside lawyers. If Morrisey wants to hire an outside lawyer, he must first submit a written statement explaining why lawyers in the office cannot handle a case. It also bars Morrisey from filing amicus, or “friend of the court,” briefs without approval from the House speaker, Senate president, or the governor – all Democrats.
Democrats claim this bill is needed because of a post-election contribution to Morrisey from Cardinal Health, a Washington, D.C., company being sued by the state and for which his wife has served as a longtime lobbyist. Morrisey has stepped aside from this lawsuit and has put in place a policy to deal with potential conflicts of interest in the future.
Of course, the Attorney General’s office should be free of conflicts. While his wife’s connection with Cardinal Health may look troubling, Morrisey took action to correct the situation and the suit continued. And he has put into place a policy that should eliminate any future potential conflicts like this.
But this bill has very little to do with ethics. Morrisey’s main problem is that he is a Republican and he defeated McGraw, the patron saint of the state’s trial lawyers. Call this bill their revenge.
“The attorney general is the legal representative for the state of West Virginia and therefore must be the gold standard in providing legal services in a manner that preserves the public trust in our judicial system,” Judiciary Committee member Delegate Issac Sponaugle told a Charleston newspaper.
While Morrisey has done more in his short term in office to make the office function for the people of the state more than it had in the 20 years previous, it may not be that huge of an accomplishment. The “gold standard” Sponaugle spoke of was a bar not set very high in the first place.