CHARLESTON – The executive director of a state legal reform group has questioned why Attorney General Darrell McGraw's chief deputy seemingly speaks for his re-election campaign to the press.
But McGraw's top aide says she is doing nothing wrong and, in fact, went on the offensive against West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse and Republican AG candidate Dan Greear.
"That Darrell McGraw seemingly has no problem with the Office of the Attorney General speaking on behalf of his re-election committee underscores his arrogance and disrespect for the law," WV CALA Executive Director Steve Cohen said. "McGraw's record is replete with abusing his office with shameless self-promotion that clearly crosses the line when the chief deputy AG is also serving as campaign mouthpiece."
Cohen was referring to an Oct. 15 Charleston Daily Mail article headlined "Greear, McGraw in testy contest." The story said Greear blasted McGraw for refusing to debate, saying McGraw's campaign "doesn't want the attorney general's temper to show in public."
In the story, Chief Deputy Attorney General Fran Hughes told reporter Justin D. Anderson that Greear's campaign has been "recklessly sullying McGraw's reputation and smearing McGraw's employees in public."
"The bottom line is that 'Judge' McGraw believes he has a record of 16 years of public service," Hughes said the Daily Mail. "He doesn't think it's appropriate to give license to somebody to stand up in public and sling mud and engage in falsehoods.
"It's hard to rebut somebody who goes to extremes in misrepresenting the actions of the attorney general."
On Wednesday, Hughes responded to Cohen's criticisms.
"Mr. Cohen is trying to advocate for the defeat of Attorney General McGraw, which is something he cannot do," she said. "He's not registered … CALA is not registered as a political action group. It's a 501(6)(c) group.
"They sent mailings out touting Dan Greear. … They clearly are trying to affect the election. We believe they are violating the law."
Hughes said Cohen repeatedly has attacked the work of the attorney general's office.
"He constantly impugns the reputation of the employees of this office who have worked on cases on behalf of the state," she said. "He's talking about the function of the attorney general's office, it's not about the re-election campaign. He has to justify his job."
Hughes also mentioned an August run-in with Cohen at a court hearing in Wheeling.
Ohio Circuit Judge Ronald Wilson withheld $3.9 million from special assistant AGs appointed by McGraw's office to help sue Visa and MasterCard. He did so after Cohen, an Ohio County resident, voiced an objection.
Cohen asked Wilson to require reports from all private attorneys on work they performed, and he 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."
After the hearing, Hughes confronted Cohen in the hall outside the courtroom. She told him 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.
"He showed up at that hearing in Wheeling and objected to the attorney fees and expenses in the MasterCard Visa case," Hughes said Wednesday. "He admitted he hadn't read the pleadings and the petition for attorney fees. I call that a cheap publicity stunt."
Hughes said the AG's office has WV CALA on its radar.
"We are going to challenge their non-profit status," she said. "We are going to do whatever we can as an office to stop them from doing things in the name of a watchdog group. We're going to put out accurate information when they try to impugn the work of the attorney general's office.
"When they try to mislead people about the attorney general's office, they're not just talking about me. They're talking about everyone in this office."
As the spokesperson for the AG's office, Hughes said journalists often call her about the campaign.
"When a reporter calls about the campaign, I normally refer them to the campaign office," Hughes said. "When they press me for a response, I do sometimes give them my opinion. But it's the reporter calling me. I didn't seek them out."
Hughes also mentioned Greear's frequent attacks of her and the AG's office.
"Dan Greear has attacked me personally all over the state," she said, referring to numerous print and broadcast interviews. "Again, I will stand up … We will stand up as an office when he talks about our office.
"I will respond when attacked. I don't care that he's a candidate for attorney general. We have a right to respond."