McGraw

By STEVE COHEN

CHARLESTON -- If now notorious Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is allowed to take his parrot with him if he ends up in the federal penitentiary, you can bet the cellblock will be serenaded with "Pay to Play, Bawwwwwwwwwk! Pay to Play! Pay to Play! Bawwwwwwwwwk!"

Not that the Land of Lincoln's chief executive is the first to abuse the public trust. But the parrot's refrain is appropriate closer to home.

As one example, half of the top campaign contributors to Mayor Luke Ravensthal of Pittsburgh ended up getting city contracts. Hmmm. It led Craig Holman, who according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is a national expert on government contracting reform and the governmental affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a Washington-based good government group, to take note.

"If lawmakers are relying on campaign contributions from those who are getting government contracts, there is a very high danger of corruption," Holman concluded.

But Mayor Ravensthal, sensitive to that danger, pronounced this fall that his justification for awarding any contract would be posted to the city's Web site. That will shut up that parrot.

Well, the beak of the investigative press is not so timid. The Post-Gazette, the same newspaper that exposed the awarding of unearned master's degrees at West Virginia's flagship university, now reports that, months after making that promise, just two of 113 contract award explanations have been made public on the municipal Web site.

Observers of the West Virginia political scene could conclude that our state is fertile ground for a parrot jungle of its own.

Take Attorney General Darrell McGraw, for example.

About half of the personal injury lawyers who bankrolled his re-election drive this year with large contributions got no-bid contracts from him, from which they stood to reap millions of dollars in legal fees at public expense, according to official state campaign finance reports.

Perhaps because Mayor Ravensthal's primary election is just months away, and McGraw just eked out another term in the November general, our attorney general feels no compunction to post any justification for his awarding no-bid contracts to a public website.

Why, for example, should McGraw have to explain why he let two campaign-contributing West Virginia law firms he hired tell a judge they worked "hundreds of hours" to claim their share of a $3.9 million fee for a lawsuit settlement reached with two financial services companies. One would think the chief legal officer of a state might demand more accountability on a multi-million dollar legal fee invoice submitted to the state for funds that citizens or state tax coffers might better deserve.

The pay-to-pay choir also chirps for McGraw over a trio of hires in a lawsuit he settled just hours after his 2004 re-election. After delivering more than $40,000 in campaign cash to the AG, these personal injury lawyers collected $3.3 million in legal fees at public expense.

Then, too, there's the law firm in the state that donated to the McGraw campaign enterprise that was "deputized" by him to circumvent the discovery process in a private lawsuit it filed. Only after public attention was focused on the suggestion of pay-to-play in this case did the AG fold his arrangement with his contributor.

Perhaps reformers here should consider replacing the cardinal as West Virginia's state bird.

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

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