CHARLESTON – Attorney General Darrell McGraw's office says the state's Eastern Panhandle needs a regional office to help it serve consumers from that area.
In its budget request for the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1, McGraw's office requests money to improve its outreach to the panhandle.
"We desperately need a regional office in this part of the state because of logistics difficulties associated with serving consumers from that area of the state," a written presentation given to the House Finance Committee on Feb. 1 says. "Our research shows that the citizens of the Eastern Panhandle feel disjointed from Charleston. Such an office will allow us to expand services and reduce costs in some cases."
Chief Deputy Attorney General Fran Hughes, who made the presentation to the committee, elaborated in a phone interview.
"We have statistics showing the number of complaints, and Martinsburg is low in accessing the services that our office offers," she said. "It was really skewed, and it doesn't make sense given the population."
Hughes said the plan for the office would be to have an investigator, an attorney, a paralegal and a secretary.
Hughes noted that the AG's office previously has had satellite offices in the northern part of the state in Morgantown and in Moorefield in the Eastern Panhandle. But she said those branches were closed down when state departments had to make budget cuts a few years ago.
Having field offices is somewhat common among attorneys general across the country, according to Angelita Plemmer, director of communications for the National Association of Attorneys General headquartered in Washington, D.C.
At least three neighboring states – Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia – have such offices.
Vicki Glass, spokeswoman for Kentucky AG Greg Stumbo, said the idea to open field offices was part of Stumbo's 2003 campaign. The state has four field AG offices in Prestonsburg, Maysville, Shively (Louisville area) and Benton in addition to its main office in Frankfort and a secondary office in Louisville.
"The offices have truly been utilized by consumers, and the staff in the offices have been able to do a lot of training on consumer protection issues with seniors, for examples, in the communities," Glass said. "They allow us to get the word on initiatives of the office.
Glass said each of the four field offices have one staff person in the office. That person isn't an attorney, she said, noting that they each have received training to handle consumer protection questions.
"I'd say the field offices have been very beneficial," Glass said. "There are walk-ins. It has made it a wonderful situation for the citizens to not have to come to Frankfort to deal with some issues."
Virginia AG Bob McDonnell's office has four regional offices in Northern Virginia, Abingdon, Roanoke and Hampton Roads.
"We have four people in our office," said Erika Fischer, a community outreach coordinator who runs the Hampton Roads office. "We don't have an attorney in this office right now."
Fischer said her job involves being a local point of contact for the AG's office. That includes offering services and acting as a resources. The other people in her office are Medicaid fraud investigators. She said the other Virginia field offices have a maximum of 10 workers.
While Fischer said her field office has switched locations and currently isn't in a good place to welcome much walk-in traffic, she said it still is beneficial.
"We do a lot of pointing people in the right direction," she said. "A lot of folks don't know what the AG does. We report back to Richmond about what's working, what needs to be done."
Louisiana has five regional AG offices that, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Cluck, typically handle cases in their respective geographic areas. She said all consumer protection matters are handled by the main AG office in Baton Rouge.
At the other end of the spectrum from Kentucky is California, which has legal field offices in Oakland, San Francisco, Fresno, Los Angeles and San Diego.
Nathan Barankin, communication director for California AG Jerry Brown, said the Fresno field office is the smallest with between 70 and 80 employees.
"We have public assistance points of contact in every one of our legal offices," Barankin said. "We have walk-ins, but there isn't a high volume of those except for Los Angeles and Sacramento."
McGraw's office is budgeted for $9.4 million this year. Gov. Joe Manchin proposed it receive $9.9 for the year that begins July 1.
Hughes said the agency seeks extra funds for the regional office and to cover costs in several of its divisions.