NEW MARTINSVILLE - Before they wage war on the campaign trail, West Virginia's candidates for Attorney General will battle in a Wetzel County courtroom.
Republican challenger Hiram Lewis is defending the owner of a funeral home in a suit filed last week by the current Attorney General, Democrat Darrell McGraw. McGraw's suit says John Iams has violated the state's Credit and Consumer Protection Act and preneed funeral laws.
"Iams Funeral Home has gone over and above the requirements to protect all of the preneed contracts," Lewis said. "This is simple retaliation for questioning the practices of the Attorney General's office."
Lewis and McGraw already have fought for the office in 2004, resulting in the closest Attorney General's vote in state history. Both received 50 percent of the vote, with McGraw grabbing 5,307 more of the nearly 703,000 votes.
A fair amount of mutual hostility was displayed during the campaign. McGraw would not sit next to Lewis or respond to his questions during a meeting with the Charleston Gazette's editorial board, and Lewis publicly debated a man in a chicken suit because McGraw refused to participate.
McGraw is seeking his fifth term as Attorney General. Lewis is a 36-year-old Morgantown attorney and former Army Ranger. McGraw also served in the Army.
Filed Oct. 24, the suit against Iams alleges that he misappropriated money consumers had given him for preneed funeral contracts, that he did not file required documentation with the Attorney General's Preneed Funeral Contracts Division and that he was operating without a business license.
McGraw has audited Iams Funeral Home twice, each time discovering Iams had taken customers' money that was supposed to be placed into trust accounts in the customers' money and put it in the funeral home's account.
The suit was filed after Iams did not renew his Certificate of Authority and his employee's license to sell preneed funeral services.
"The State requests an Order to Show Cause why the Certificate of Authority and license to sell preneed funeral contracts should not be revoked and why the defendants should not be enjoined from engaging in business governed by (preneed funeral laws)," the complaint says.
Also, McGraw is seeking a temporary restraining order preventing Iams from selling preneed funeral contracts until the matter is resolved.
McGraw also wishes for:
* A permanent order enjoining Iams from selling preneed funeral products or services in the state;
* An order requiring Iams to transfer all open preneed contracts;
* Civil penalties in the amount of $5,000 per violation of the Preneed Act and the CCPA;
* Punitive damages in three times the amount of any actual damages awarded;
* Pre-judgment interest on all refunds and civil penalties;
* Reimbursement for court costs and attorneys fees; and
* Post-judgment interest.
Lewis, meanwhile, says he requested records kept by McGraw on Iams in September under the Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act. The request was denied, Lewis said.
"This is just another example of McGraw abusing his power for personal gain," Lewis said.
McGraw demanded Iams transfer more than $200,000 in preneed funeral contracts to other funeral homes.
"I would have lost my business," Iams said.
Lewis is asking for an investigation into McGraw's Preneed Funeral Contracts Division, sayiing he hopes this case will "shed light on their abuses of power."