CHARLESTON – Now that Gov. Joe Manchin has sign a bill that will keep him and lawmakers in the loop on lawsuits settled by the attorney general, a statewide legal reform group says details of such settlements should be in the public domain.
House Bill 104, passed during the recent Special Session, does not prevent McGraw from employing his normal practice of distributing settlement money, but it only requires him to disclose that information to the Legislature. It requires the AG to notify the Legislature and others of any settlement reached for more than $250,000.
Manchin signed the bill into law on April 1.
Steve Cohen, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (WV CALA), said the bill is meant to curb McGraw's legal wheeling and dealing that has at times "converted lawsuit settlement dollars into, what has become essentially, his own political slush fund."
Cohen's group says the new law is a good first step, but says more must be done to make sure the public at large is informed of such information.
"This is about open government so the attorney general's abusive spending practices will be held up for public scrutiny," Cohen said. "We urge the Governor and legislative leadership to keep the public apprised of any proposed settlement from the Attorney General's office."
Cohen says McGraw's "abuse of power comes at the expense of West Virginia's poor and elderly, the state's most vulnerable." He went on to note that federal officials have threatened to forfeit close to $5 million in matching Medicaid funds for West Virginia because McGraw has not provided money to the state from lawsuits he settled.
"Of the $10 million OxyContin settlement McGraw inked hours after his 2004 re-election, more than $3 million in public funds went to private attorneys he hired as outside counsel even though 'one of their chief qualification for the appointments seemed to be that they bankrolled McGraw's political machine,'" Cohen said. "McGraw has distributed the remaining funds from the settlement to his political friends and their pet projects in Charleston.
"West Virginia taxpayers are entitled to complete transparency. Even with this legislation there can be no margin for the attorney general to be seemingly acting outside the law."
Cohen went on to say McGraw's using the lawsuit settlement money "for shameless self-promotion is arrogance befitting his masquerading as his own branch of government."
Last month, Republican AG candidate Dan Greear also said HB104 doesn't go far enough.
"The Attorney General should be solving legal problems, not creating them," Greear said during the meeting at the Pullman Plaza Hotel. "Once again, McGraw is forcing the Legislature to pass legislation to try to curb his abuses.
"Considering all the problems our state faces, the Legislature should not be forced to fix the messes of a constitutional officer.
"House Bill 104 is a warning shot, but it doesn't do much else."
And last week, McGraw's chief deputy AG said she thinks the Legislature did the right thing in how it crafted HB104.
"I think the Legislature recognized that there is a separation of powers," Fran Hughes told The Record. "The AG is the chief legal officer of the state and that there might be implications under the law for separations of powers if the Legislature starts abrogating that role as chief legal officer.
"The citizens of West Virginia have elected Darrell McGraw as their chief legal officer, not the Legislature. I think there was a recognition there. But as far as providing notice to the Legislature, we have no problem with that."
McGraw and Hughes previously have said that the OxyContin/Purdue Pharma settlement was intentionally structured in a way that prevented the Legislature from receiving any funds.
Sen. Jesse Guills, R-Greenbrier, a member of the Senate Finance Committee asked McGraw in a January meeting who would be responsible for paying the federal government back if it comes to that.
"If we lose this contest, who will pay the $4.1 million?" Guills asked.
"The burden is back on the Legislature," McGraw replied.
Guills also asked where that money would come from.
"Perhaps sharper pencils than mine can find 0.005 percent of that money," McGraw said, referring to $2 billion figure he's secured in settlements since becoming AG.
McGraw said his office had three options when reaching the OxyContin settlement.
"We could take the money agreeable to the judge and the drug company," he said. "We could've turned it over to the DHHR, and the money would have gone back to the federal government. Bye-bye.
"Or we could've given it to the Legislature, which would have been obliged to give it to the DHHR. Bye-bye."
McGraw had another dicey encounter with lawmakers when he met with the House Budget Committee. Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, criticized McGraw's actions.
"The minute your office or any office gets money for the State of West Virginia, that money is instantly the property of the taxpayers of West Virginia," Doyle said, according to a report in the Charleston Daily Mail. "Therefore, the Legislature must decide how it is spent."
Trial lawyers hired by McGraw to represent the State in the settlement received more than $3 million in attorneys fees.
Hughes said she thinks the entire issue over McGraw and settlement money is a red herring created by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which owns The West Virginia Record.
"Literally, less than 1 percent of all monies we have brought into the state were not given to the Legislature," she said. "They (the Chamber) knew this would be a popular issue with the Legislature, and they've exploited it.
"If you're talking about something that less than 1 percent of everything you do and you compare that to everything we've brought to the table … we're responsible for balancing the budget for the last eight years."