CHARLESTON -- A statewide legal reform group is criticizing a budget request by Attorney General Darrell McGraw's office to open a satellite office in the Eastern Panhandle.
During a Senate Finance Committee hearing Feb. 18, McGraw and his staff presented its budget request for fiscal year 2009-10. Part of that package was $332,000 for the proposed office, which likely would be located in Martinsburg. The money for the office, however, was not part of Gov. Joe Manchin's budget he presented to the state Legislature.
Joe Clay, fiscal affairs director for the AG's office, told the committee that residents of the Eastern Panhandle don't feel connected to Charleston and don't feel as if they're part of West Virginia. He also said consumer protection complaints from the Eastern Panhandle have increased from 257 in 2005 to 583 last year.
The proposed satellite office would be staffed by a deputy AG, a paralegal, an investigator and a secretary.
During his presentation, Clay said the satellite office would be beneficial for a variety of reasons.
"Most citizens like personal contact," Clay said.
But the executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, which long has questioned McGraw's ethics and spending, takes issue with the satellite office idea.
"Nothing says 'personal contact' like the $140,000 in public funds McGraw spent on trinkets bearing his name that cascaded the region when McGraw sought re-election," Steve Cohen said.
Cohen also noted that sworn testimony from a fired McGraw aide revealed that Chief Deputy AG Fran Hughes ordered the $140,000 expenditure because her boss was "politically weak" in the Eastern Panhandle.
"So, the 'politically weak' comment certainly explains a lot," Cohen said. "I guess McGraw feels taxpayers should spit out a third of a million to bolster his political machine in an area where he is weak by hiring state staff for some good old political 'personal contact.'
"This is classic McGraw behavior, like state-funded vans emblazoned with his name driving in parades and the state money spent on campaign trinkets."
Also at the Feb. 18 Senate hearing, McGraw was asked if his office is complying with a law passed last year that requires he notify the governor, Senate president and House speaker of any claims that could result in $250,000 or more for the state.
McGraw said his office is doing so, but he was adamant that he doesn't like the new law.
"That bill was offensive to us," McGraw said. " Anything we do is a matter of public record.
"We have to prescribe to the legislation, but just because we prescribe doesn't mean we don't find it offensive."
In response to that, Cohen said lawmakers should be outraged by McGraw's comments. He noted that federal officials already have withheld more than $4 million from a state Medicaid match because McGraw failed to deliver restitution to West Virginia's Department of Health and Human Resources from a lawsuit he settled in 2004.
"This is the public's money," Cohen said.