CHARLESTON – With Labor Day in the rearview mirror, the General Election is just around the corner.
And with that, advertising for two of the most contested state races has revved up.
In recent weeks, ads from the Center for Individual Freedom, West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce have popped up, naming candidates in both the state attorney general and Supreme Court races.
And earlier this week, an ad from Attorney General Darrell McGraw's campaign, drew the ire of his candidate for what it calls an attempt by McGraw to compare himself to civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
Republican Attorney General candidate Dan Greear said he "was shocked and disgusted" at McGraw's radio ad that began airing on Metronews' "Talkline" program Wednesday.
"Only Darrell McGraw in all his audacity would compare himself to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King," Greear said. "I'm shaking my head he would even dare mention his own name in the same breath as these two great civil rights leaders.
"Rosa Parks was a leading civil rights pioneer. Martin Luther King was one of the greats of the 20th Century and gave his life in the name of freedom. Darrell McGraw uses taxpayer funds to campaign and enriches his trial lawyer contributors through lucrative contingency fee contracts. I miss -- and I'm sure the people of West Virginia miss -- the connection."
Greear also said McGraw's reference to King's assassination was offensive and should be rewritten or the ad stopped.
"Darrell McGraw is taking one of the great tragic moments of our time and somehow trying to compare himself to what Martin Luther King suffered. He should apologize for the offense to the African-American community of our state and to every citizen who knows what Martin Luther King did for America."
Greear also chided McGraw for suggesting in the ad that under a Greear administration the "Consumer Protection Division will be shut down by Saturday."
"Everyone can rest assured predators and those who defraud our consumers will be dealt with severely in my administration," Greear said. "We will have an aggressive consumer protection division. The difference is any money collected will be turned over to the Legislature for distribution as our Constitution demands.
"Unlike Darrell, we will not enrich our friends and use consumer protection money to buy trinkets with my name on it. That's not shutting down the Consumer Protection Division, it is running the Consumer Protection Division as it properly should be run. Unfortunately, Darrell doesn't understand that distinction."
Center for Individual Freedom
The Center for Individual Freedom is running a television and radio ads critical of current Attorney General Darrell McGraw's often-criticized practice of spending settlement money instead of letting legislators handle it.
McGraw's candidate, Republican Dan Greear, has made this practice one of the centerpieces of his campaign.
Ads by third-party groups, such as WV CALA and the Center for Individual Freedom, can't lobby for the election of defeat of a candidate. But these groups can show how candidates agree or disagree philosophically with their points of view.
The Center for Individual Freedom ads spotlight the $10 million Oxycontin settlement McGraw's office brokered in 2004.
"They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks," an announcer says to start the ads, as a photo of McGraw is sitting on a porch beside a dog. "Twenty-eight years of controversy and Darrell McGraw's at it again; spending $10 million from a settlement meant to help workers and the elderly.
"Instead, divvying it up between his trial-lawyer buddies in a fund only controlled by McGraw."
Near the end of the ad, the announcer tells listeners to call McGraw's office and "tell him to return the people's money."
Fran Hughes, McGraw's chief deputy AG, has said that groups such as the Center for Individual Freedom is funded by big businesses that often are the target of McGraw lawsuits from his Consumer Protection Division.
"They have gone to court to fight for the right to be able to put out information that promotes a big business agenda and not disclose the source of the money," Hughes told the Charleston Daily Mail, referencing a federal lawsuit the Center for Individual Freedom filed against Secretary of State Betty Ireland. Hughes also said money brought in by McGraw's office has helped pay down the teacher retirement debt and created the funding pool to privatize workers' compensation insurance.
"I think that says you're good for business," Hughes told the Daily Mail.
Greear, on the other hand, criticized McGraw's office for its use of outside counsel, another bone of contention for the AG's critics. Greear also called out Hughes for saying settlements in these lawsuits "pay for the expenses and for the attorneys that are hired."
"This is absurd," Greear said. "First of all, it is illegal. There is no state authorization to hire outside counsel. They just created that in their monarchy approach.
"Secondly, everyone in the free world recognizes the conflict of giving a contract to your political donors -- except Darrell and Fran, of course.
"Thirdly, let the Attorney General's Office do the work and give the state Legislature the attorneys' fees money for appropriation. West Virginia tax payers and the state would save millions."
Greear also took the opportunity to question why Hughes has become the face of the AG's office.
"Where is Darrell?" Greear asked. "Why do we always here from Fran? Who is the Attorney General -- Darrell or Fran? The lights are on in the Attorney General's Office, but no one is home.
"To respond that this is nothing more than 'big business' picking on them (Darrell and Fran) is a joke. This is a wake up call and the alarm is blaring…people are sick and tired of Darrell and Fran's questionable and behind-closed-doors practices."
Another radio ad from WV CALA takes aim at the Huntington law firm of Greene Ketchum Bailey and Tweel. That firm is home to Menis Ketchum, one of two Democrats vying for two seats on the state Supreme Court.
The ad, according to WV CALA Executive Director Steve Cohen, is meant to warn listeners that "TV-advertising personal injury lawyers are a roadblock to legal reforms that help create jobs."
Cohen cited a recent WV CALA survey that found that more than three of every four West Virginians feel personal injury lawyer advertising encourages people to sue even if they have not been injured.
"Do you get tired of hearing TV ads by personal injury lawyers," asks the narrator, explaining that "junk lawsuits mean higher prices at the store, fewer good jobs and reduced access to health care."
The ad notes that the state's legal system has been ranked the worst in the nation by several groups and that Forbes magazine places the Mountain State last for its jobs climate.
"One personal injury lawyer in Menis Ketchum's firm tried to undo our legal reforms," the narrator says, "good laws that helped re-open trauma centers and keep our doctors here."
It also says some personal injury lawyers "helped file a lawsuit that could hurt our neediest citizens and cost taxpayers millions" of dollars in federal Medicaid funds.
The ad concludes by saying personal injury lawyers "want to file more lawsuits so they can get rich."
"Don't let TV-advertising personal injury lawyers like Menis Ketchum steal health care and jobs from hardworking West Virginians," the ad concludes, inviting listeners to "join the fight against lawsuit abuse" by visiting the website www.LawsuitGreed.com.
At that site, visitors can join WV CALA and view information about the group's push to reform the legal system in West Virginia.
Cohen said several states, including neighboring Kentucky, have regulated lawyer advertising.
"West Virginians see outrageous and irritating personal injury lawyer ads constantly, but the most dangerous ones cross the line by exaggerating facts, scaring citizens into filing lawsuits when they have not been injured and promising cash payouts for misfortunes no one else caused," he said. "Personal injury lawyer advertising in West Virginia these days fosters the growing public perception that our courts dispense cash, not justice."
These ads, Cohen says, "take away public respect for our courts and promote our courts as a public lottery driven by personal injury lawyer greed. Ads that say things like 'In a wreck? Get a check!' are more like carnival hucksterism than promoting justice.
Ketchum told the Daily Mail he hasn't heard the WV CALA ad.
"I do know that CALA is funded with out-of-state money," Ketchum told the paper. "West Virginians aren't advertising against me."
Another radio ad from the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce praises Republican Supreme Court candidate Beth Walker for her work on the group's human resources committee and for her work to push for job creation and economic development.
State Chamber President Steve Roberts says the ad will run through early September.