January 'tis the season for floating ambitious public policy ideas. And out of Charleston, 2007 won't see a more important one than Del. Patrick Lane's latest proposal to rein in the office of West Virginia's Attorney General.
In House Bill 2268, Lane (R-Kanawha) officially introduced the initiative this week in the House of Delegates. No doubt, it's the most comprehensive attempt yet to solve the Mountain State's "Darrell McGraw Problem."
The crux of it is that McGraw, clearly comfortable in an Attorney General position he's held for more than 14 years, has been on a slow but steady power grab. Casually but forcefully, he's usurped the authority of our governor and state lawmakers who, to our disappointment, have proven too frightened for their own political careers to object.
Chalk up the fear factor to the fact that McGraw, like most populist politicians, doesn't run alone. So picking a fight with the attorney general over, for instance, his habit of enriching pal plaintiff's attorneys by hiring them to sue businesses on the state's behalf, means picking a fight with those pals as well.
To be sure, if Lane's concepts were to catch on, they'd have the most to lose. We're talking about not just hundreds of thousands but millions of dollars in McGraw-strong-armed abundance, sprinkled annually -- mostly silently -- across the West Virginia plaintiff's bar.
That's in the way of easy-picking contingency fees, routinely gouged off the top of rich cash settlements extorted by McGraw's specious suits. They are always the inevitable resolve after a target's CEO weighs the pros and cons of defending themselves in a rural West Virginia courtroom.
But lawyers aren't the only ones feeding at this trough. With the cash he keeps for himself, McGraw buys himself good cheer with non-profits and the like across the state. He gives $40,000 here to the Clay Center for its Sesame Street exhibit, $500,000 there to the University of Charleston's pharmacy school. The former went with a flashy press conference touting the AG's dedication to "schoolchildren;" the latter came with a plaque in his honor.
Darrell, it's so sweet that you can so generously pay homage to yourself with our tax dollars.
Lane himself has had it with this self-serving racket. He wants McGraw to stop hiring his buddies on contingency and start soliciting bids for private legal work, just like every other state department. He wants the Legislature to approve all settlements of lawsuits brought on behalf of the state, and he wants any resulting windfall to be deposited in the general treasury -- not McGraw's personal PR piggy bank.
If this all sounds simple and sensible to you, be warned. Many of Lane's lawmaking colleagues think his ideas are plain crazy.
If they're the ones supposedly representing you in Charleston, our condolences. Our attorney general demands loyalty in his subjects, and you should know by now, he doesn't like to share.