By MIKE MYER

WHEELING -- One method traditionally used by politicians to divert attention from their own shortcomings is to sling mud at their opponents. That's just what West Virginia Chief Deputy Attorney General Frances Hughes did last week in Wheeling.

A hearing involving a settlement in a lawsuit against two big credit card companies, Visa and MasterCard, was held Aug. 20 in Circuit Judge Ronald Wilson's courtroom. Part of it concerned how much attorneys who worked on the case will receive.

Attorney General Darrell McGraw sued the companies - but the vast majority of the work was done by four outside law firms. That has been McGraw's practice in big "consumer protection" lawsuits - to use outside law firms, often those whose members have made contributions to his political campaigns. In the Visa/MasterCard suit, two West Virginia law firms (one from Wheeling) and two out-of-state ones represented McGraw.

An $11.6 million settlement has been approved. McGraw wants the outside law firms to get $3.9 million of it.

During the hearing, Steve Cohen of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse asked Wilson to require that the law firms provide an accounting of work they performed. He also wants information about how much of the case was handled by the attorney general's office.

Finally, he thinks options that were considered for settlement of the lawsuit ought to be made public.

Those all seem like reasonable requests. Shouldn't West Virginians know more about how the attorney general deals with millions of dollars' worth of their interests? It remains to be seen whether Wilson will agree.

Hughes sat through the hearing and offered no input - until it was over. Then, she launched a barrage against Cohen. Wagging her finger at him, she said he was "dishonest when you stood up and called your organization a citizens' watchdog organization. You are a business entity, and you will be exposed. Someday, you will get your due."

Note that Hughes never addressed the issue at hand. Neither she nor her boss want the public to know too much about how "consumer protection" lawsuits are handled. They also would prefer that voters not think about how proceeds of the settlements are dealt with. They don't go into the state treasury. McGraw has kept millions of dollars from the settlements, doling them out to various "worthy causes." He knows every dollar he hands out nets him good will - and votes.

But Mountain State voters are becoming fed up with McGraw. He has serious opposition, from Charleston attorney Dan Greear, in the November election.

Greear's platform includes pledges to:

* turn all money received from lawsuit settlements over to the state treasury.

* hire outside law firms only through a competitive bidding process, ending "favoritism and cronyism."

* refuse to use public money for political gain.

Neither McGraw nor Hughes want to talk about those points - because they highlight abuses in which the attorney general has engaged for years.

Instead, they'd rather attack their opponents, accusing them of ulterior motives.

It may be that McGraw and Hughes are getting nervous - with good reason. Voters indicated in the 2004 general election that McGraw's welcome was wearing out. He won re-election by a vote of only 359,491 to 353,545 - a margin of less than 1 percent. This may be the year in which voters finally say "no" to McGraw's old-style special interest politics - with himself and a few lawyer friends as the most special of his interests.

Myer is a column for the Wheeling Intelligencer. He can be reached at myer@theintelligencer.net.

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