Disarming Darrell

by The West Virginia Record |
Feb. 2, 2006, 10:23pm

It's encouraging that West Virginia legislators are giving Attorney General Darrell McGraw's budget the scrutiny it deserves. But we hope they also play close attention to the money he's spending out of sight.

We're talking about attorney contingency fees, a state budget loophole through which McGraw has schemed to spend more taxpayer dollars on more politically motivated lawsuits that fall outside the scope and mission of his office.

Rather than use one of his 60 staff lawyers for which we already pay, McGraw has taken to deputizing private counsel to sue deep-pocketed companies such as Capital One or Johnson & Johnson on behalf of "the people of West Virginia."

Not surprisingly, "the people" don't get much out of the deal. But those lawyers -- big-game hunting plaintiff's types who love working with the wind of the state's unlimited resources at their backs -- always do. And come election time, they never forget the man who made it all possible.

Consider the case of Purdue Pharma, sued over its marketing of OxyContin in West Virginia. Two Charleston law firms and one from Washington, D.C., negotiated a $10 million settlement between the state and the company, of which they will share $3.7 million for their efforts.

But the state originally demanded $30 million from the drug maker, which begs the question -- if this issue was so important to the "people," why settle for so much less?

The obvious answer underlies why this practice has to stop. To get more than their $3.7 million in fees, those lawyers might have had to go to mat with Purdue Pharma. That meant a full-blown trial -- including much, much more work -- all with the chance that they would get zero if they lost the case.

For private lawyers, the prudent business decision was inevitable -- just take the $3.7 million and move on to the next lawsuit. Why take the risk?

Unaccountable to the people, the state wouldn't hire private lawyers to prosecute public criminal matters. Civil lawsuits over consumer fraud issues are no different.

If the legislature really believes it is Mr. McGraw's charge to imitate New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and sue every company under the sun, then they should give his office a budget commensurate with the task.

But the process isn't self-serve. In the name of checks and balances, this spring that's a message worth sending.

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