CHARLESTON – Critics of Attorney General Darrell McGraw's distribution of lawsuit settlement funds are speaking up again after McGraw doled out $375,000 last week.
Since Feb. 12 when Chief Deputy Attorney General Fran Hughes told the Senate Finance Committee that the AG's office would stop doing so, McGraw has handed out $875,000 to various day report centers across the state.
"My comment was I'll believe when I see it," said state Sen. Vic Sprouse, a Kanawha County Republican member of the Finance Committee. "And I'll continue to think that way."
On Feb. 22, McGraw's office awarded $220,000 to three county day reports centers. The money, according to McGraw's office, is from the third installment in the $10 million settlement with Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the drug Oxycontin.
Then on Feb. 26, McGraw's office then gave out $280,000 to four county day report centers and another similar private group.
On March 6, McGraw's office announced it doled out $375,000 more to nine different day report centers and community corrections programs. The counties that received funds were Harrison ($30,000), Wyoming ($40,000), McDowell ($40,000), Monongalia ($40,000), Cabell ($40,000), Upshur/26th Judicial Circuit ($40,000), Barbour ($45,000), Preston ($50,000), and Wayne ($50,000).
Critics argue that it isn't part of McGraw's job to hand out the money. They say the AG's office should put the lawsuit settlements into the state's general revenue fund. Then, legislators would decide how the money should be spent.
The president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce says the actions are a serious problem.
"Fran Hughes went to the Capitol and said he (McGraw) was going to stop," Steve Roberts said. "Since then, he's given away hundreds of thousands more. It certainly appears inappropriate, and clearly he and his staff are not in sync with each other."
Steve Cohen, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said something has to be done about McGraw's actions.
"In the closing hours of the session, the Governor and Legislature have had a real shot at curbing Darrell McGraw's abusive power -- his conversion of public dollars from lawsuit settlements into what is essentially a political slush fund," Cohen said. "And this is in the echo of McGraw deputy Fran Hughes vowing to lawmakers that her boss would not misappropriate money which is not his.
"McGraw's questionable ethics compromise the integrity of West Virginia's system of justice and drives jobs from out state."
Sprouse said the so-called Sunshine Act, which would make the actions of the AGs office more public, is desperately needed. The bill, however, died in committee this legislative session.
"I think that if this were a Republican AG, the Sunshine Act would've passed 10 years ago," Sprouse said. "What frustrates me is that the Democrats all complain about him as much as the Republicans if not more. But they're not willing to cross him. I understand where they're coming from about not crossing a member of their own party, but it's frustrating. But public pressure about this is growing.
Sprouse also took issue with comments recently made by McGraw about the AG's office forming a committee to decide how to distribute the settlement funds his office keeps.
"Forming some committee doesn't make it better," Sprouse said. "It doesn't mean a thing. The bottom line is that it's not their job to appoint the committee. And still, that is not how government works. The Legislature is supposed to do that.
"The funny thing is that about 99.9 percent of the time, we'd probably give the money to the same groups he's giving it to. It's just not his job to do that."
Roberts said the state Chamber of Commerce will continue to push for the Sunshine Act.
"It's an issue that we're going to keep talking about," he said. "The Legislature really needs to exercise more control over these types of practices. So yes, we will keep pointing out the embarrassing situation it puts the state in."
Neither McGraw nor Hughes returned calls to The Record seeking comment. But last month, McGraw told the Charleston Daily Mail that the criticism of his distribution methods are both political and "picayune."
McGraw maintains that the OxyContin settlement is an applied trust because the judge ordered the money be used to combat drug addiction. He said giving money to day report centers falls into that category.
"The programs offered through the Day Report Centers and Community Correction Programs include individual counseling, group counseling, gambling abuse assessment, drug and alcohol education, drug testing, parenting education and basic adult education, and job placement. These programs address the specific needs of each individual client referred to the facility," McGraw said in press releases announcing the awards. "Public service projects like day report centers and community correction programs give non-violent offenders, the opportunity to rehabilitate their lives and cuts the escalating cost to counties for the regional jails."
Previously the office has given $500,000 to the University of Charleston for its pharmacy school and $30,000 to the Clay Center for a traveling Sesame Street exhibit about the human body.
"That's where we are on this," he told the Daily Mail. "That's why they create applied trusts. … In the final analysis, we are simply carrying out legislative policy."
Purdue Pharma settlement agreed to pay West Virginia $10 million over four years. The bulk of the money -- including the $1 million from this year's distribution -- has been used to operate the Day Report Centers and help communities fight the scourge of drug abuse that wrecks a community, according to McGraw's office. This funding will serve more than 20 counties across West Virginia.