CHARLESTON -– A statewide legal reform group has named outgoing Republican state Sen. Andy McKenzie its "Watchdog of the Year" for raising questions about the attorney general's spending of lawsuit settlement dollars.
West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (WV CALA) recently saluted McKenzie as "a guardian of public funds who respects the constitutional role of state officeholders."
WV CALA Executive Director Steve Cohen praised McKenzie for standing up "for the ethical standards that this attorney general has arrogantly snubbed for his own political gain, essentially converting proceeds from lawsuits he settles into, what is essentially, a publicly bankrolled campaign slush fund for shameless self-promotion."
Democratic Attorney General Darrell McGraw was narrowly re-elected last month to his fifth term.
"Senator McKenzie was an important voice in a step to reform in the Legislature this year," Cohen said.
House Bill 104 requires the attorney general report to the governor and House and Senate leadership on lawsuit settlements.
"It is my belief that only the legislative body has the ability to appropriate and dispense dollars," McKenzie said, taking issue with McGraw's contention that a court order gives him the latitude to allocate lawsuit settlement proceeds to his pet projects.
"By law we're the only body that can disperse the money. No executive branch can do that. Illegal is illegal."
From the Senate floor, McKenzie blasted "the systematic, fundamental and blatant intrusion by the attorney general upon the Constitutional powers and duties of this Senate." That led Cohen to remark that McKenzie "seemed to have taken those words from the lips of Robert C. Byrd."
"The recent news article pronouncing the disbursement and appropriation of money by the attorney general's office was a blatant assault upon this body," McKenzie told his fellow senators. "Nowhere in our Constitution is an executive office empowered to take money belonging to the state and hand it out at its sole, unfettered discretion."
McKenzie called McGraw's spending "an affront to each and every taxpayer and citizen of this state who rightly deserve that money." The northern panhandle lawmaker said "the attorney general's office is not a legislative body and it must stop acting as such."
WV CALA has also praised McKenzie for raising issues over McGraw's hiring practices, naming campaign contributors to no-bid contracts as plaintiffs' counsel from which they reap millions of dollars at public expense in legal fees when the attorney general settles lawsuits.
"I think there clearly are some glaring problems and issues that the attorney general's office needs to step up and respond to," McKenzie said. "It's secretive and closed. He doesn't want people to know what's going on there and he doesn't want people to even ask questions about it."
McKenzie is completing his third term in the state Senate. He did not seek re-election this year.