CHARLESTON – Despite naming him as a co-defendant in a 2003 lawsuit, a Charleston attorney says the suit should not impue a Morgantown attorney's ability to be the next president of West Virginia University.
"It shouldn't reflect negatively on his ability to be president of WVU," said Jason Huber with the law offices of Forman and Huber of candidate Michael S. Garrison. "Reasonable and intelligent minds can disagree, and Mike Garrison is a reasonable and intelligent mind."
On March 21, the WVU presidential search committee announced it narrowed its list of candidates to three finalists. Garrison, who manages the Morgantown office for Spilman, Thomas and Battle, was among the finalists.
In addition to his work as an attorney, Garrison served as chairman of the state Higher Education Policy Commission. He resigned as chairman upon the search committee's announcement.
Prior to that, Garrison served as chief-of-staff to then-Gov. Bob Wise. During his tenure, court records show, he along with his administration colleagues Keith Burdette, Alex Macia and Ed Staats, along with their boss and several legislative leaders, were named by Huber as co-defendants in suit to determine if a "working committee on workers' compensation" in which they were all members was a public body subject to the Open Governmental Proceedings Act.
Determining if committee a 'governing body'
According to court records, Huber, on behalf of Wheeling attorney Sue Howard filed suit in June 2003 against Wise and Burdette, Macia and Staats, who, at the time were Wise's chief legislative liaison, chief legal counsel and chief of operations, respectively. Also named the suit were Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin and Sens. Jeffrey Kessler, Vic Sprouse, Brooks McCabe and Walt Helmick along with then-House Speaker Bob Kiss and Dels. Don Caruth, Sam Cann and Tom Campbell.
In the suit, Huber alleged that all the defendants, who were being named in their official capacity, were members of the Working Committee on Workers' Compensation. The Committee, Huber alleged, was "formed under the auspices of the West Virginia Senate, House of Representatives [sic] and the West Virginia Chief Executive Officer, defendant Wise…to study, evaluate and propose legislation ostensibly designed to make the West Virginia Workers' Compensation Fund solvent."
According to court records, Huber alleged the Committee neither provided the public proper notice of its meeting dates and times nor minutes from meetings previously conducted. Huber filed the suit on behalf of Howard in the midst of a special session on workers' compensation reform as Howard represented "numerous client [sic] who will be detrimentally impacted by the sweeping reforms."
On June 11, 2003, Huber asked Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King to issue a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against any proposed legislation until the issues raised in the suit could be resolved. King denied Huber's request that same day.
However, six months later, King gave Huber a partially victory. In ruling on Deputy Attorney General Barbara Allen's motion to dismiss, King on Dec. 10, 2003 said Huber could conduct limited discovery into the executive branch defendant's participation on the "governing body" issue.
Since then, Huber has had little success in obtaining information. According to court records, after filing several motions including one for contempt of court, Huber finally received a reply from Allen on September 13, 2005.
In her reply, Allen said all "defendants are willing to be deposed on the 'governing body' issue and to answer any questions about documents." However, Allen added the "problems, despite her good faith efforts, undersigned counsel has been unable to locate the documents despite the good efforts and assistance of the office of general counsel of the Governor."
The documents in question, Allen concluded, were believed to be somewhere in storage.
After holding a hearing on Huber's contempt motion, King on November 11, 2005 ordered "each defendant shall report to the Court, though his respective counsel, as to the existence and location of any documents that are relevant to the issue…"
King's order came amidst Garrison and his colleagues leaving government service after Wise decided not to run for a second term in 2004 and his successor Gov. Joe Manchin, in conjunction with the Legislature, privatizing the workers' compensation program during the 2005 session.
When none of the defendants produced documents, Huber filed a second contempt motion on April 13, 2006. King set a hearing on that motion for December 12.
Counsel for the Legislative defendants asked for a stay since the hearing would fall on the date for the Legislature's December interim meeting. Since then, no other motions or orders have been added to the case file.
No hard feelings
Though the case technically remains open, Huber said its "at a little bit of a dead end." Since no defendant could come forward and produce any documents, "I don't know who played what role," Huber said.
However, Huber said he harbors no animosity toward any of the defendants, including Garrison. The purpose of his suit was to ensure that any proposed government action concerning workers' compensation reform be done in the open.
"My experience with Mike is that he would not intentionally violate any law," Huber said.
Garrison will visit with WVU faculty, staff and students April 10-11.