By Steve Cohen
March Madness has special meaning to us in West Virginia, with our Mountaineers playing among the nation's best on the basketball court.
From a political perspective though, there is madness this March resounding through the halls of the state capitol and around West Virginia. It is anger and public outrage over an out-of-control Attorney General Darrell McGraw.
Why the ire? Citizens are on to his practice of naming personal injury lawyers who contribute to his campaigns as "Special Assistant Attorneys General" to file lawsuits on behalf of the state.
These lawyers have been hired in secret backroom deals, without any competitive bidding or standards for selection. They have become the highest paid officials in the state, reaping millions of dollars for single cases. Suffice it to say, they have received far more than our governor and state university presidents earn in a year.
The Attorney General's office has many lawyers on its staff, yet Darrell McGraw chooses to hire outside personal injury lawyers who he says he can "work with."
Apparently, of the roughly 4,000 lawyers in the state of West Virginia, McGraw chooses only to "work with" fewer than 20 personal injury lawyers to make millions in no-bid contracts, many of the same lawyers who have contributed to his campaigns.
One such personal injury lawyer contributor, who was tapped by Darrell McGraw for five no-bid, get-rich appointments, has been connected to about one out of every six dollars given to the Attorney General's campaign in 2004.
In the recent settlement of a lawsuit over the marketing of a painkiller, McGraw chose to pay the personal injury lawyers he had hired before giving funds to state agencies that brought the lawsuit. His campaign-contributing personal injury lawyer pals received $3.3 million in legal fees, and of the remaining $6.7 million, the three plaintiffs got not one dime!
Darrell McGraw has a history of giving away the public's money and using state lawsuit awards for his own pet projects and political purposes. McGraw's office has been described as handing out public funds "any which way he wants without oversight from anyone."
While we would like to think that West Virginia's state legal system is designed for fairness, openness and economic growth, the fact is it looks more like a 19th Century, political boss-driven, patronage system.
During the Attorney General's last reelection campaign, when both Darrell McGraw and his brother, Warren, were running for office, the Attorney General's office spent nearly a million dollars promoting and advertising the McGraw name across the state using public funds.
Things have gotten so out of control with Darrell McGraw that last month he "deputized" two of his personal injury lawyer buddies to subpoena records from a company these same two lawyers were already suing. In effect, McGraw was handing over to his friends the power of the state to grease the discovery process for their own private litigation.
Why March Madness? West Virginians are fed up with the absence of accountability in the Attorney General's office. We want ethics reforms - a law to shine a bright light on his backroom deals, his cozy relationships with campaign contributors who get no-bid contracts, and his gifts of public money made without public oversight.
While there may be a lot of madness around the basketball court this month, legislators would do well to note how mad West Virginians are becoming over the actions of our Attorney General.
Cohen is executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, a nonprofit citizen watchdog group interested in a variety of civil justice issues.