By STEVE COHEN

CHARLESTON -- When the trophies are presented at the Downtown Athletic Club this December in lower Manhattan, West Virginians will be cheering for their Number 5, Pat White, to carry the Heisman home to the Mountain State.

Despite the recent challenges of the WVU football program, the Mountaineer signal caller has injected some real excitement to his team, drawing national recognition.

When the opposition defense is perhaps unsuspecting, White calls a play that is not too unfamiliar to us off the field – the quarterback sneak. We in West Virginia know this play -- we see it in the actions of our attorney general, in the capitol and even in our courtrooms.

Consider, for example, the state's chief legal officer, Darrell McGraw. His "quarterback sneak" play is to hire his campaign contributors to file lawsuits on behalf of the state, from which they get multi-million dollar legal fees at public expense, without any disclosure. The hiring is not posted on his Web site, neither are the details of the lawsuits he settles.

Want to throw a flag at the line of scrimmage? A bureaucratic Freedom of Information Act filing is your only remedy. Even then McGraw has sneaked across the line since he managed to conveniently seal one case file.

On a fair field of good government, public officials competitively bid for contracting professional services. Not McGraw. He calls the sneak play against a defense of lethargic legislators content to concede McGraw's slight of foot.

But these same lawmakers call a sneak play of their own when they get the ball. This year, for example, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee got a bill passed that hides the amount of damages demanded by a personal injury lawyer filing a lawsuit. This quarterback sneak was inspired by the greedy plaintiffs' lawyer who slapped an eatery with a $10 million lawsuit over an alleged allergic reaction to a slice of cheese on a sandwich.

Such greed so outraged the public and humiliated the West Virginia lawsuit industry, that we now have a law that sneakily keeps these outrageous claims from public view until after the check is cut.

One Wood County lawsuit was filed just a few months before that quarterback sneak was called. A personal injury lawyer sued on behalf of a bank customer for $3 million after a slip-and-fall not far from the teller window. But in a classic case of jackpot justice, just what do we know about any alleged negligence? Just sneak me a quick three-mil, won't ya?

So when watching this Christmas season the highlight reel of Pat White calling the sneak play, let's hope the gridiron, not the halls of justice, is the only place we see it.

Cohen is executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

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