CHARLESTON – West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse is starting an ad campaign focusing on the legislative Judiciary Committee chairs for siding with their "personal injury lawyer cronies to block meaningful legal reform."
Delegate Carrie Webster and Sen. Jeff Kessler, meanwhile, dispute WV CALA's claims.
CALA contends Webster and Kessler, both of whom are attorneys, are largely responsible for the failure of the West Virginia legislature to sufficiently act on lawsuit reforms this year. A CALA ad campaign informs voters that Kessler and Webster "failed again to fix West Virginia's broken legal system and rein in Attorney General Darrell McGraw's misuse of public funds."
"West Virginia workers and taxpayers pay the cost of out-of-state lawsuits in our courts, but a bill Kessler and Webster supported does not adequately address the problem," CALA Executive Director Steve Cohen said. "They chose instead to side with their personal injury lawyer cronies and block meaningful legal reform."
Cohen cited a recent public opinion survey conducted by Charleston-based RMS Strategies which found that more than three in five West Virginians rate the legislature's work on improving the job market here as only "fair" or even "poor."
The CALA ads also single out Kessler and Webster for not letting their committees consider bills to make the attorney general accountable for his hiring practices.
"For years, Attorney General Darrell McGraw has been hiring his personal injury lawyer friends – who contribute to his campaigns – to file lawsuits for the state and reap millions for themselves in legal fees," Cohen said. "Then McGraw gives away state lawsuit awards for his own pet projects."
Cohen said research prepared for WV CALA by RMS shows that more than four in five West Virginians say the attorney general should be required to use an open rather than secret bidding process when hiring outside attorneys.
"West Virginia's broken legal system continues to chase away well paying jobs and raise the price of consumer goods and services," Cohen said. "But lawmakers failed to enact comprehensive lawsuit reforms that would help everyone – not just the personal injury lawyers who control our government."
Webster said she personally is disappointed by CALA's tactics.
"It's so ironic to me that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and CALA are accusing Jeff Kessler and I of enacting phony reform when the real story is that the reform that the Chamber was proposing was phony," she said. "It was the exact type of legislation that the Supreme Court also said was unconstitutional."
Kessler echoed Webster's comments.
"CALA simply is mimicking the U.S. Chamber," he said. "Actually, there have been several significant legal reforms that have been passed on my watch in the Legislature."
Both also discussed CALA's comments about the AG's office.
"Not one person came to me and asked me to address the actions of the attorney general," Webster said.
Kessler noted that McGraw's office already has said it plans to change how it dispenses money.
"He's already agreed to change how he does things," he said. "We're willing to look at that. It absolutely should be a power left to the Legislator to distribute funds."