CHARLESTON – The leader of a statewide legal reform group says he is concerned that key legislative leaders received major campaign contributions from personal injury lawyers.
But at least one of those leaders is fighting back, saying West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse should reveal its donors.
House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, and the chairs of the Judiciary committees in the state Senate and House of Delegates -– Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, and Carrie Webster, D-Kanawha, respectively -- are three of the top four takers of large campaign contributions from personal injury lawyer interests, according to pre-general election finance reports filed with the Secretary of State.
Steve Cohen, executive director of WV CALA, says those figures alone could be "roadblocks to reform" in terms of tort reform efforts supported by his group.
"The public has looked with disfavor on legislators beholden to the lawsuit industry," Cohen said. "Frivolous filings in our courts and lawsuit greed drive jobs out of West Virginia and threaten our health care.
"By holding leadership positions, their taking so much cash from personal injury lawyer interests signals their likelihood to block reform that could create West Virginia jobs."
But Webster called Cohen out, saying WV CALA should let the public know who gives it money.
"Every penny that we receive as candidates and every penny that we spent must be disclosed," said Webster, an attorney herself. "Yes, I received money from many groups and many individuals. But I also should note that I was endorsed by the state Chamber (of Commerce) and the state Business and Industry Council and many other business groups.
"Those business endorsements show I'm attempting to balance my personal opinions on issues with my role as Judiciary chair. I'm not married to a particular opinion when someone comes into my office."
Webster said she thinks groups such as WV CALA should have to reveal their cash sources when they enter the political ring.
"Money from third-party groups should be treated the same way as campaign donations," she said. "How much money did they (WV CALA) spend and who did they spend it on?
"After all, money from third parties in the state Supreme Court and Attorney General races essentially tripled the money the candidates themselves spent on the campaigns.
"How does revealing that information squelch their free speech?"
Webster said she thinks Cohen actually is hurting the state's business climate when he talks about these issues.
"He and his hyperbole is really doing an extreme injustice to the progress our state's economy has made in recent years," she said. "CALA, under his leadership, has become reckless. And that shows by their refusal to look at the positives steps we've taken.
"We did reform on medical malpractice, on Workers' Compensation and on third-party bad faith. And we have not pursued any repeal of those reforms, even though I think there are substantial problems that have been created.
"Talk and actions by groups like CALA makes you not want to do anything because it never seems to satisfy them. They're creating a backlash."
Kanawha County Delegate Sharon Spencer, a Democrat, rounds out the quartet on WV CALA's "Dirty Dozen" list with the three leaders.
Spencer had the highest percentage of her campaign cash coming in from personal injury attorneys. More than half of her take in large campaign contributions is from personal injury lawyers, according to WV CALA.
Along with Spencer, four other candidates on WV CALA's pre-general election Dirty Dozen ran in the 30th House District: Bonnie Brown, Bobbie Hatfield, Mark Hunt and Danny Wells. The remaining candidates were Barbara Evans Fleishauer (House District 44), John Frazier (House District 25), Jack Yost (Senate District 1) and Mike Caputo (House District 43).
In releasing its "Dirty Dozen" list of candidates who took in the highest percentage of donations from personal injury lawyers and groups, WV CALA also notes that three of the six such legislative candidates lost in this spring's primary elections. Large donations are at least $250.