WHEELING – An Ohio County judge says he needs more time to rule on how much attorneys will be paid in Attorney General Darrell McGraw's multi-million dollar case against Visa and MasterCard.
Ohio Circuit Judge Ronald Wilson made that announcement in a letter to the attorneys involved this week, according to a story in Friday's Wheeling Intelligencer.
During an Aug. 20 hearing, Wilson withheld $3.9 million from special assistant AGs appointed by McGraw's office to help sue Visa and MasterCard when he approved an $11.6 million settlement against the credit card giants. The lawsuit filed by outside counsel working for McGraw's office claimed the companies price-fixed fees, forced merchants to accept debit as well as credit cards for payment and committed other deceptive practices.
Wilson said then he would rule within 30 days on how the special assistant AGs would divide the legal fees.
"As I reviewed the information provided to me on the issue of the request for attorney's fees in the above matter, I found the issue to be far more complex and important that I realized when I told you that you could expect a decision within 30 days," Wilson's letter this week stated. "I now doubt that the order will be issued until sometime in December.
"As in your practice, each day is filled with new problems and new crises and it is difficult to find the time to complete this important memorandum order on the attorneys' fee issue."
Wilson told the newspaper that his delay was not politically motivated.
"Absolutely not," he said. "I was aware that issue had been raised and I had hoped to make a decision because the issue was raised. But, I want to write a decent opinion."
Wheeling lawyer Teresa Toriseva is one of the outside attorneys in line for a share of the $3.9 million.
"It's the right thing for him to do," Toriseva told The Intelligencer. "It shows Judge Wilson is being diligent in deciding how the attorneys who work for the West Virginia State Attorney General are paid.
"It specifically refutes the criticism of how attorneys are paid who are appointed by the attorney general to represent the interest of West Virginia consumers. This shows that there is a full and fair process by which attorneys fees are decided. It also is a reflection of the fact that Judge Wilson has an extremely busy docket and this is one of many decisions he has to make."
The executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse said Wilson's delay underlines serious problems in McGraw's lack of accountability.
"Where was the oversight when these attorneys said they had worked hundreds of hours on the case?" Steve Cohen asked in the Intelligencer story. "Was it 200 hours or 500 hours? If they worked as much as 1,000 hours, it would equate to $3,300 per hour."
Cohen, who lives in Wheeling, raised an objection in the Aug. 20 fee hearing that spurred Wilson to look deeper into the issue.
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, Chief Deputy Attorney General Fran 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 earlier this month. "He admitted he hadn't read the pleadings and the petition for attorney fees. I call that a cheap publicity stunt."