By STEVE COHEN

CHARLESTON -- Remember "Pork Chop" Booth, the contractor awarded millions of taxpayer dollars for equipment maintenance jobs? A high-ranking state schools' official steered the business to his buddy and was subsequently slapped down by a federal court for doing so.

This illegal inside dealing prompted the state to change the law this year and impose "emergency rules" preventing such coziness for most state contracts.

One would think that Attorney General Darrell McGraw would embrace the new standards as a model for arms-length propriety in state government contracting; an opportunity to build a Chinese wall to insulate his office against ethical impurities in his dealings with those receiving public funds under his control.

One would think that the state's chief legal officer would be the first public official to blow the whistle on conflicts of interest in awarding contracts for vendor services. Yet he has overseen the payment of millions to personal injury lawyers who are his campaign contributors and whom he hires to serve as deputy attorneys-general.

Despite the purchasing reforms affecting other government workers, Darrell McGraw seemingly greases the skids behind closed doors, without the slightest bit of public scrutiny.

"That's how I generally operate," said McGraw's spokeswoman, Fran Hughes, in explaining to a reporter why there is scarcely a shred of documentation about the arrangement the Attorney General has with those to whom he awards such fat contracts.

"People are too much into this e-mailing," said Ms. Hughes. "We have a lot of face-to-face meetings."

Hard-working West Virginians may find it difficult to distinguish how Darrell McGraw's face-to-face meetings are any different from those which lined Pork Chop's pockets with taxpayer money. At least Pork Chop's largesse was competitively bid, rigged as it may have been. Darrell McGraw's deals with outside counsel apparently aren't even bid at all!

One McGraw gig now in the works appears designed to award a lobbying firm with close ties to the AG's lawsuit industry friends a lucrative contract. This contract recalls another one where nifty trinkets bearing the McGraw name were cascaded across the state during a McGraw re-election campaign, as part of an official government promotional campaign with a near-seven-figure price tag charged to the citizens of West Virginia.

The new state rules prohibit writing a proposal tailored for one firm to avoid competition. In cases like this, an excuse of "that's-how-I-generally-operate" shouldn't suffice for public disclosure. This situation screams for a "sunshine law" that will blanche our elected officials in the bright light of public accountability.

As long as Darrell McGraw follows the "Pork Chop" Booth model of wheeling and dealing, it may be awhile before West Virginia families experience any employment growth, and our state will continue to lose more of its youth to better opportunities in other states. Respectable employers generally don't put jobs in a state where millions of public dollars change hands with nothing more than "face-to-face meetings."

Cohen is executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, a nonprofit citizen watchdog group interested in a variety of civil justice issues.

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