CHARLESTON -- After the House of Delegates passed a controversial bill targeting the state Attorney General's office, legal watchers were quick to attack the move.
West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse said House Bill 4490, also known as the Attorney General Ethics and Accountability Act, seems to forget all of the issues many critics had of former Attorney General Darrell McGraw.
“Instead of focusing on legislation that would jump start our economy and create jobs, improve our legal climate or keep our water safe, the West Virginia House of Delegates, which is led by greedy television advertising personal injury lawyers, made a top priority of passing House Bill 4490," WV CALA Executive Director Greg Thomas said Tuesday. "This legislation will prevent (current) Attorney General Patrick Morrisey from pursing many consumer protection violations.
"Instead, contingency fee outside attorneys hoping to reap millions from settlements, as we saw in the days of Attorney General Darrell McGraw, will represent the State of West Virginia."
Thomas said it's clear that HB4490 is "politically motivated" and does not address the problems of McGraw's use of outside counsel who were "making millions through backroom contingency fee agreements to represent the State of West Virginia."
"It seems the House of Delegates’ leaders allegiance is to greedy personal injury lawyers who fund their political campaigns," Thomas said. "Meanwhile the U.S. Census Bureau says West Virginia has the lowest workforce participation rate in the entire country and last week we topped Gallup’s list of the most miserable states.”
The state Republican Party was quick to stand behind current AG Morrisey, who is a member of the GOP. Morrisey defeated longtime incumbent McGraw in the 2012 election.
"Instead of going after the unethical politicians in their own midst, West Virginia's Democrat Delegates voted today to impugn the reputation and attempt to destroy the office of our state's top legal officer, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey," GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas said. "This unconstitutional bill is an assault on the West Virginia Constitution, the separation of powers and Morrisey's honorable attempts to audit and investigate wrong-doing in state government."
Lucas praised Morrisey's work during his time in office.
"Morrisey has used his office not to enrich trial lawyers, but to defend this state at the United States Supreme Court from attacks on our coal jobs and Second Amendment rights," Lucas said. "Coal voters and those who support firearms freedoms should note today's Democrat votes as against coal and against the Constitution.
"Morrisey is the only statewide elected official fighting for these things against Obama's irresponsible presidency."
Lucas also called out those across the aisle.
"Perhaps even worse, Democrats today actively rebuked Morrisey's plans to audit state government agencies," he said. "Despite the fact that the ruling party is riddled with scandal, this desperate attempt to preserve their culture of corruption is pathetic."
Lucas said the party plans to use the passage of HB4490 during this year's House election cycle.
"We stand with Patrick Morrisey," he said. "We stand for ethical government. And we intend to make every voter know this fall who is responsible for wasting this legislature's time and failing to clean up our real ethics problems in government."
House Speaker Tim Miley, a Democrat, said Monday evening the bill simply made sense to him.
“When you strip away personalities and politics, it comes down to the simple question: Is this good public policy?" Miley, a Democrat from Harrison County, said. "I truly believe this is.
“As I have said before, this legislation is focused on the attorney general because among the West Virginia constitutional officers, the attorney general is unique. Being the legal representative of the state of West Virginia, the attorney general is both an executive and judicial officer who must balance constitutional duties with the attorney-client relationship.”
Delegate Stephen Skinner, a Democrat from Jefferson County, said there have been multiple efforts over the years to clarify the AG's powers via legislation.
“The most successful attempt was 2004, when the House Democratic leadership introduced a bill which passed the House but died in the Senate,” he said. “The attorney general at that time was Democrat Darrell McGraw.”
When the Legislature audited the Department of Agriculture, conflicts of interest issues were found within its loan program, prompting corrective legislation, Delegate Isaac Sponaugle noted. Similarly, reports of the current Attorney General facing a conflict of interest with no specific rules to follow prompted this measure.
“He had a conflict of interest that he acknowledged and took steps to address, but there is not a clear procedure for handling such conflicts, such as there are for county prosecutors,” Sponaugle said. “We merely want to place in code standard procedure for that type of situation, so there can be no question as to whether the conflict was sufficiently addressed.
“We want to assure the public that any West Virginia Attorney General’s Office will not be clouded by conflicts of interest issues," said Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, a Democrat from Pendleton County.