CHARLESTON – Attorney General Darrell McGraw on Wednesday compared actions of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to tactics used by Adolf Hitler.
McGraw made the comments when asked about the 2008 State Liability Systems Ranking Study, which was released Wednesday by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. For the third consecutive year, the Mountain State was ranked 50th in the study, conducted by Harris Interactive Inc. The study is a national sample of in-house general counsel or other senior corporate attorneys to explore how reasonable and balanced the tort liability system is perceived to be by U.S. business.
"I do subscribe to the idea that the means and methods the National Chamber uses to influence public opinion are like those Hitler used," McGraw said while being interviewed in his state Capitol office. "Exaggeration and propaganda of all sorts."
The regional director of the Anti-Defamation League called McGraw's comments "appalling."
"To compare the tactics of the Chamber to those of Hitler are not only offensive, but it shows a profound lack of understanding for who Hitler was, what he stood for and what tragedies his regime perpetrated," said Shari Kochman, regional director of the Ohio/Kentucky/Allegheny region of the ADL. "There's no parallel in history. None. And whenever there is any comparison to Hitler, it diminishes the history and the memory of the 6 million Jewish people and the 5 million people of other ethnicities who perished under his regime. It also insults the memory of those fought bravely against Hitler.
"It's becoming tragically too common for Hitler's name to be used like this. It's not only inaccurate, it's a true offense and insult not just to the Jewish people, but to all people who believe in liberty and justice."
Kochman also said it doesn't matter that McGraw compared the tactics of the Chamber and Hitler instead of simply comparing the Chamber and Hitler.
"And by trying to temper his statement … it doesn't matter," she said. "It simply was very, very sad judgment on his part to use that comparison."
A local rabbi also said comparisons to Hitler "never are appropriate."
"The U.S. Chamber … they're not taking away people's civil rights, they're not coming in at night and arresting people and torturing them," said Rabbi Bar-Yaacov of Charleston's Temple Israel. "The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is not committing genocide. It's not rounding up people and making them into slaves.
"He could use other terms just as harsh without bringing up Hitler."
She said the comments hit very close to home for her.
"I don't have grandparents, aunts and uncles because of Hitler," she said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform had nothing to add.
"The comparison is so over the top that it doesn't dignify a response," Larry Akey said.
The executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse said the ILR study is the type of news McGraw and his trial lawyer friends and donors don't like to hear.
"The personal injury lawyers who fund Darrell McGraw's campaigns love to get rich from filing lawsuits and feel very threatened when someone draws the connection between how those lawsuits affect jobs in our state," Steve Cohen said. "Numerous reports echo this ILR survey in saying our state's national reputation as a place to bring jobs is horrible.
"Look at how many of the highest recent verdicts in the country came out of West Virginia. If our attorney general wants to see West Virginia as a state with nothing but law offices and unemployed people, he should continue to keep his head in the sand about how the lawsuit climate harms our citizens."
Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said he was offended by McGraw's comments.
"Any rational West Virginian would be offended by such an outrageous statement, and this statement is made all the worse because the Attorney General's office should be one of thoughtfulness and respect and reasonableness," Roberts said. "We at the Chamber of Commerce are just tired of being embarrassed by the antics of our state's Attorney General.
"We at the state Chamber have never complained about those works that are good and professionally done. What we have complained about are those works for obvious political gain, usually at the expense of the citizens of West Virginia."
Roberts said he couldn't help but think of his father, a World War II veteran and lifelong Democrat.
"He would be appalled to learn that a high-ranking state official had made such deplorable comments," Roberts said. "To compare the nation's largest business advocacy organization to the tactics of the worse despot in the history of the world is truly disgusting."
McGraw isn't the first prominent West Virginia official to make such comments.
In 2005, a Jewish Republican group accused Senator Robert C. Byrd of making an "inappropriate and reprehensible" reference to Hitler in criticizing a Senate Republican plan to block Democratic filibusters.
McGraw and the U.S. Chamber long have butted heads. The West Virginia Record is owned by an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber.
McGraw said the Chamber has attacked him during the course of his tenure as AG because he has done his job of protecting the citizens of West Virginia by going after companies who break the law.
"West Virginia is at the top of the list of state in terms of work product per capita of the Attorney General's office," McGraw said, standing beside a table upon which a copy of John Grisham's "The Appeal" and a book about fascism laid. "We've collected $2 billion since I took office."
McGraw said he considers that figure "a badge of honor because we enforce the law and protect the citizens."
"But that is turned upside down by the national Chamber," he said. "We just represent different points of view."
McGraw said the Chamber constantly attacks West Virginia because it an important energy state.
"Because of the influence the energy industry wields within the U.S. Chamber of Commerce," he said. "Look at the management of the national Chamber.
"West Virginia is a small state, but it also is a very important state nationally because it is an energy-producing state."
McGraw also said he disagrees with studies that call West Virginia's court system a "judicial hellhole."
"Look out that window," he said. "It's a sunny day. A beautiful spring day. Look at the trees in bloom. Does that look like a hellhole to you? I don't think so. And I also don't agree that we live in a judicial hellhole."