Leaders hope AG 'sunshine act' sees light of day again

By Chris Dickerson | Mar 3, 2006

Attorney General Darrell McGraw

Steve Roberts

Steve Cohen

CHARLESTON – A House of Delegates bill that would have tightened the belt on the state Attorney General office's contracts with outside attorneys died on the Rules Committee table, but some state leaders say part of the language from the proposal could find new life amended to other legislation.

One state leader who was following the legislation said the Rules Committee "drove a stake through its heart."

Wednesday, March 1, was the 50th day of the second session of the 77th Legislature. That is the last day to consider a bill on third reading in its house of origin.

House Bill 4767, which was introduced Feb. 24 and read the first time on the House floor on Feb. 27, received a second reading on Feb. 28. But on Thursday, March 2, the bill was tabled on third reading.

The bill had been moved to the special calendar, a procedural move that the Rules Committee can employ this late in the session. The Rules Committee sets what bills go onto the special calendar to be acted upon. If the committee decides to not put a bill on the special calendar, then the measure is dead.

The proposal would have required the Attorney General to comply with certain requirements when entering into contracts for legal services to be performed by persons other than full-time Assistant Attorneys General or other full-time employees of the state as well as modifying current statutes to require greater legislative and executive supervision of these types of contracts.

Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said his group was surprised at what transpired.

"Boy, were we disappointed to see the House leadership not act on that bill," he said. "We are having trouble understanding why the House is so reluctant to stand up to the AG. The House has discussed a similar bill twice and passed it once.

"Maybe somebody thought this piece of legislation was getting legs and was afraid it would pass the Senate. Why they didn't want to address the lack of the AG's open purchasing process is something we just don't understand."

The bill included the following provisions: (1) requiring the Attorney General to report to the Governor and the Joint Committee on Government and Finance relative to these contracts; (2) requiring the AG to report to the Governor and Joint Committee on Government and Finance upon the conclusion of such services, including a statement of fees involved on an hourly basis; (3) prohibiting the payment of fees to such persons in excess of $500 per hour; (4) requiring the joint committee to study the new provisions and to report recommendations for further changes to the full Legislature before the 2008 session; (5) requiring the AG to submit semi-annual reports to the Governor and the Joint Committee on Government and Finance while requiring the inclusion of information concerning the nature of these contracts; (6) requiring all attorney fees or costs awarded the Attorney General to be deposited into the State Fund; and, (7) requiring that contracts proposed by the AG be approved as to form by the Secretary of State.

Attorney General Darrell McGraw has drawn criticism of late over the practice of hiring outside attorneys to work on cases for his office. Others have complained that these attorneys he's appointed to serve as Special Assistant AGs have made significant contributions to his political campaigns.

"Some of these Special Assistant Attorney Generals are the highest paid officials in the state, getting millions of dollars per case," said Steve Cohen, executive director of the nonprofit West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

"These special AGs are done without any bid standards, and it seems that only 15 or 20 have these privileges. All of the known special assistant AGs are political contributors to McGraw. One of these has had five no-bid appointments from the AG.

"And a 2002 Legislative Auditors report questions whether he (McGraw) had legal authority to appoint these special AGs."

Cohen said he and his group are "extremely disappointed" that the House Rules committee didn't act on the proposed legislation.

"If this Legislature is truly committed to legal reform, then they will adopt HB4767 in some form," he said. "The public needs to put pressure on their legislators to have the language of HB4767 and included in final legislation.

"It's high time the Legislature took action to rein in an out-of-control Attorney General. West Virginia needs a government and legal system that the public can watch over and trust. We hope the entire Legislature and the governor act on this important issue to restore public confidence in our state legal system and top state legal officers."

Roberts said there are plans to try to get the bill's language added to legislation that has already passed.

"But we think we will have to take some of the provisions out," he said. "We're looking for bills that are germane."

House Speaker Bob Kiss, through spokeswoman Stacey Ruckle, explained that the House pursued two bills to address this in 2004, but one died in the Senate and the other was defeated in the House after a fight on the floor.

Some business representatives interested in the latest bill approached Kiss, who indicated that because the House already has passed such a bill previously, they should get something passed in the Senate first then the House would vote on it.

Nothing came from the Senate. Regardless, the House went ahead and moved a bill out of the House Finance Committee this session, but the Rules Committee decided to pull it from the calendar.

Roberts noted that the state Senate passed a bill which does limit the AG's powers in some ways.

"So the Senate obviously has an interest in this," Roberts said.

Deputy Attorney General Fran Hughes said she hopes the actions of the House Rules Committee essentially end this topic of discussion.

"I hope this issue is moot," she said Thursday. "I hope that any problems we have had with the Legislature have been resolved. We want to work with the Legislature. We just want to do our job of protecting consumers. We hope the Legislature recognized the job we're doing."

Hughes said the proposal's requirement that attorney fees and costs awarded to the AG's office be deposited into the State Fund would have a crippling effect on the office.

"If you took away our money, I would have to lay off a significant number of people," she said, calling the AG office's monthly WestLaw bill for handling every criminal appeal in the state astronomical. "That would have an effect on the services we provide and the quality of that service.

"The voters of West Virginia voted for Darrell McGraw to be the chief legal officer of the state. That's not the function of any other branch of state government or any other state officer."

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