CHARLESTON – A state legal watchdog group is unhappy with proposed legislation that would force it to reveal its largest financial backers if it wants to make campaign contributions, claiming it is a violation of its right to free speech.
West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse says the bill is merely a ploy by Attorney General Darrell McGraw, initiated by a lawmaker with close ties to the office, while Chief Deputy Attorney General Fran Hughes has said in the past that CALA is funded by "large out-of-state corporate interests."
CALA director Steve Cohen said Del. Carrie Webster (D-Kanawha) is doing McGraw's dirty work by leading the charge to enact the bill, which is encountering some resistance from state Republicans.
"Webster knows McGraw's practice of hiring his campaign contributors makes him vulnerable in the election if the public is aware of his shenanigans," Cohen said. "She is railroading this complicated bill through the Legislature in a brief special session to insulate her lawsuit sugar daddy and husband's employer from criticism this fall."
Webster works for the Charleston law firm Bucci Bailey & Javins, which was hired by McGraw to pursue a lawsuit against VISA and MasterCard. The firm is one of four to represent the State, with both in-state firms (the other is Wheeling's Wexler Toriseva Wallace) featuring McGraw contributors.
The four firms stand to collect nearly $4 million in attorneys fees in a settlement that would provide discounts on "Energy Star" home appliances during scheduled sales.
Cohen also noted that Webster's husband, Greg Skinner, is a member of McGraw's staff.
"It is comical that Carrie Webster wants to push through unconstitutional restrictions on free speech under the guise of the need for increased transparency," Cohen said. "Webster has never once supported the push for transparency in the Attorney General's office, instead voting to allow Darrell McGraw to quietly hand out million-dollar no-bid legal contracts to his largest campaign contributors, while West Virginia consumers and taxpayers continue to suffer."
Webster could not be reached for comment. A report in the Charleston Gazette chronicling the refusal of House Republicans to bring the bill to a vote quoted Webster, though.
"CALA is at risk of facing disclosure of what I would assume are mostly out-of-state contributors," she said. "My position in 2008 and in 2005 are the same: Money that comes in to the election process should be disclosed."
She added that only those who provide more than $5,000 will need to be disclosed.
"In West Virginia, campaign expenditures by entities and persons who are not candidates have been increasing and public confidence is eroded when substantial amounts of such money, the source of which is hidden or disguised, is expended," the bill says. "This is particularly true during the final days of a campaign.
"Large contributions and large expenditures by persons or committees, other than the candidate, reduce public confidence in the electoral process and increase the appearance that candidates and elected officials will not act in the best interests of the state's citizens generally."
Outspoken state Sen. Vic Sprouse (R-Kanawha) sided with CALA. Sprouse is a consultant for the campaign of Dan Greear, who is challenging McGraw in November's election.
Sprouse said election law should not be changed in an election year.
"You have to love Darrell. Darrell is getting a little tired buying off all these voters and all these campaign contributors," Sprouse recently wrote. "He figured (he'll) just go straight to the top and get the law changed to try to insure his re-election… right, mere months before his re-election."
The West Virginia Association for Justice (formerly the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association) supports the bill. The organization's president is Teresa Toriseva.
Toriseva contributed $844 to McGraw's campaign, and her firm is in on the VISA/MasterCard settlement.
"If an organization is going to spend money to influence the outcome of West Virginia elections, then West Virginia voters have the right to know who is funding the campaign, what their scheme is and how much they're willing to spend to accomplish it," said Michael J. Romano, vice president of the WVAJ.
"An out-of-state special interest group should not be allowed to spend whatever they want to influence the outcome of a West Virginia election without disclosing who they are and who they represent. The West Virginia voter's right to know supersedes an out-of-state organization's desire to shield the identities of those who fund it. There is no constitutional right to keep your identity secret when you are trying to influence the outcome of an election."
Last year, Hughes said CALA's objective is "to foster a legal environment that shields its contributors from accountability when they break the law."
"It works its sophisticated deception aimed at duping West Virginians into believing that only by giving up their rights to access to the courtroom can the State have economic development," Hughes wrote to lawmakers. "Unchecked and unfettered corporate power accountable only to shareholders is the real threat to fairness for all citizens."
Cohen thinks McGraw could use his office to attack businesses that contribute to his opposition.
"The public should be very concerned about this ploy to pull the wool over voters' eyes," Cohen said. "West Virginians are smart enough to consider all information about their candidates and shouldn't have it limited by special lawsuit industry interests in the Legislature."