WHEELING - Circuit Court Judge Ronald Wilson is withholding $3.9 million from lawyers who helped Attorney General Darrell McGraw sue Visa and MasterCard.
The judge held the money while he considers an objection to the payment from West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.
At an Aug. 20 hearing, Wilson unexpectedly heard testimony from Steve Cohen, executive director of WV CALA.
Cohen identified himself as a watchdog and as a class member in the Ohio County action that McGraw filed against Visa and MasterCard.
Visa settled the lawsuit months ago by agreeing to pay $9.3 million to the state treasury, $425,000 to McGraw's office and $3 million to private law firms.
MasterCard settled at $2.3 million for the treasury, $175,000 for McGraw and $900,000 for private firms.
The $11.6 million for the treasury will offset a sales tax holiday that the West Virginia Legislature and Gov. Joe Manchin enacted to carry out the settlement.
At the hearing, Wilson approved payments to McGraw's office and the treasury but said he wasn't ready to look at Cohen's objection.
He said he would rule in 30 days.
Wilson's decision infuriated state Chief Deputy AG Fran Hughes, though she waited until he left to express herself.
She approached Cohen and said it was dishonest to call his group a watchdog when it was a business group.
"One of these days you will be exposed, and you will get your due," she told Cohen.
Seeing that news reporters took notes, Hughes chose not to elaborate. She returned to the circle of lawyers.
Lawyers for Visa and MasterCard looked as bewildered as McGraw's team.
A day before the hearing, Cohen sent Wilson a letter asking him to require reports from all private attorneys on work they performed.
Cohen proposed "to award the fees pro rata to these firms based on their actual work, rather than to simply divide the fees equally."
He asked Wilson to reduce payments to private firms by an amount equal to the value of any work that McGraw's state employees performed.
He asked Wilson to make public all settlement options that were considered, "so that the citizens of the state and the members of the class may be fully informed as to how their interests were represented."
Wilson had set a hearing at 4 p.m. Wednesday, but that afternoon someone posted a sign on the courtroom door postponing it to 5 p.m.
At 4:45 p.m., with a dozen lawyers on hand, Wilson strode to the bench and said he might need additional documentation in connection with Cohen's letter.
For the private attorneys, Teresa Toriseva of Wheeling said they would like three days to address any of Cohen's issues that they hadn't already addressed.
Wilson asked Cohen if he wished to testify.
Cohen recited the requests in his letter.
Wilson asked if he had access to the file. Cohen said he didn't.
"It would benefit you to read, at least, the motion that was filed," Wilson said.
Toriseva said she would give Cohen a copy of the motion.
Toriseva asked Wilson if he would let her know if he wanted documentation.
"If you want your two cents worth you can file your response and I'll be the final word," Wilson said.
Wilson asked if Cohen had any other objection to the settlement.
Cohen said he didn't.
Toriseva said the legislative, executive and judicial branches all came together to bring about the settlement.
Wilson said it wasn't his role to review what the Legislature approved.
"It certainly looks like a fine settlement for the citizens of West Virginia," he said.
He asked if defendants would pay the attorney fees.
Toriseva said they would, adding that the payments would include fees and costs.