ATRA spokesman apologizes for Holocaust comment

CHARLESTON -- The executive director of a state church group has criticized an American Tort Reform Association spokesman for comments related to the Holocaust he made to The West Virginia Record.

The spokesman quickly apologized for the remarks.

The Rev. Dennis Sparks, executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, said Friday that ATRA spokesman Darren McKinney crossed a line when he provided comments for a story Thursday regarding Chesapeake Energy's job cuts in West Virginia.

ATRA is the group that annually ranks West Virginia as one of the nation's "Judicial Hellholes"

"Like Holocaust deniers, the Mountain State's 'hellholes' deniers, from Darrell McGraw and Fran Hughes to law professor Elizabeth Thornburg and Allan Karlin at the state trial lawyers association, are all free to pretend there's nothing wrong," McKinney told The Record.

"The Holocaust is one of the greatest travesties in the history of the world," Rev. Sparks said Friday. "It is unethical and irresponsible to try to advance a political agenda by putting the Holocaust into a political debate in an attempt to get a good quote in the newspaper. Regardless of what side we may be on with this particular issue, there is no question that this is wrong.

"The American Tort Reform Association should retract its statement and issue a public apology-particularly to those individuals named in the statement. One of them, Allan Karlin, is not only an individual of Jewish faith, but also someone who has devoted his adult life to be a leading human rights advocate in this state. To liken him to a Holocaust denier is not only irresponsible, but wrong."

When asked to respond, McKinney was prompt.

"I think the Rev. Sparks is right," McKinney said. "My choice of words was imprudent and insensitive, and I apologize for that choice."

McKinney apologized for the analogy, but he said the point he was trying to make is still valid.

"But this doesn't mean that those who perpetuate West Virginia's hellish litigation climate aren't personally responsible for driving jobs and educated young people out of the state," he said. "If and when the litigation racketeers apologize to the citizens of West Virginia for the economic destruction they've wrought and join a concerted effort to bring real fairness to the state's civil courts, I and other tort reformers will happily ease up on them a bit, but not a moment sooner."

On Tursday, Chesapeake Energy Corp. said a huge verdict against it in a Roane County case over natural gas royalties is one of the reasons the energy giant has decided to move the majority of its Charleston-based jobs.

The company announced it will eliminate 215 of the 255 jobs here and relocate them to its headquarters in Oklahoma City. Part of the reason given was a corporate reorganization, which will be complete by June 30.

Chesapeake's CEO, Aubrey K. McClendon, said the $404 million Roane County verdict against Chesapeake and NiSource in 2007 and the state Supreme Court's later refusal to review the case played a "significant" role in the decision.

McClendon, in a statement, thanked Gov. Joe Manchin for his support when Chesapeake started doing business in the state four years ago when it bought Columbia Natural Resources for $2.2 billion. McClendon said since that time, Chesapeake has invested $850 in the state.

"However, the reduction in our employee base in West Virginia became inevitable when we decided last year not to build our $40 million regional headquarters office complex in Charleston following the West Virginia Supreme Court's refusal to consider our appeal in the (Roane County) case," McClendon said.

"At that time, we realized that until West Virginia's judicial system provides fair and unbiased access to its courts for everyone, a prudent company must be very cautious in committing further resources in the state. Even though the state Supreme Court's decision was not the primary reason for the reorganization, it did play a significant role in our decision."

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