CHARLESTON – A statewide legal reform group is calling for legislation that provides greater insight into the workings of the Attorney General's office, but the state's chief deputy AG says she doesn't see how there could be more transparency.
Earlier this month, Mississippi lawmakers passed H.B. 211, which also is known as the attorney general "sunshine" legislation.
If similar laws were passed here, West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse says it "would address many of the problems that currently exist" within West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw's office.
"Sunshine legislation is long overdue in West Virginia," WV CALA Executive Director Richie Heath said. "For far too long, Attorney General Darrell McGraw has appointed his campaign-contributing trial lawyer friends to lucrative, no-bid state legal contracts. His office has consistently refused to give public notice when these appointments are made, or even require that the lawyers appointed keep detailed records of the numbers of hours they've worked."
Heath said the Mississippi legislation implements several "good-government" policies, such as requiring public notice for the award of any outside counsel contingency fee contracts and any corresponding legal fees paid, as well as requiring written time and expense records for any outside counsel services.
But Fran Hughes said she thinks the office is as open as it can be.
"I don't know how you could have more transparency," she said Thursday. "We frequently receive FOIA requests, and we freely disclose this information. I don't know if you can compare what Mississippi does. There's a reason why we exempt legal services from bidding. You can't forewarn the other side what your actions and strategies are going to be. You'd have to do that to put together a valid bid. We don't promise pay. Sometimes you lose, and you don't earn anything."
Furthermore, Hughes said CALA is hypocritical.
"CALA refuses to disclose their donor list," she said. "It's the height of hypocrisy. It's modern-day politics. For CALA to embrace this issue when they refuse to disclose their donors. They're actually an arm of the American Tort Reform Association. And the money comes from tobacco, big Pharma, the U.S. Chamber ...
"I think people are starting to understand. These groups that cloak themselves in nice-sounding language, they have an agenda. They are funded by the powers-that-be, and they are intent on stopping the middle class from having their day in court. I think West Virginians are going to see through this kind of trickery and deception."
Heath noted WV CALA's research of publicly available campaign finance reports that show these appointed "special assistant attorneys general" account for 40 percent of all of McGraw's 2012 campaign contributions.
"Over the years, McGraw has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the lawyers he's appointed to represent the state," Heath said. "Right now, there is absolutely zero public oversight of Attorney General McGraw's use of outside counsel.
"There's no public notice when private attorneys are appointed to represent the interests of West Virginians, there's no requirements for the attorneys to keep detailed records of the amount of time they work, and there's no protections to ensure that taxpayers' aren't gouged for millions in legal fees."
Heath urged West Virginia legislators to follow Mississippi's lead.
"What is so wrong with ensuring that the attorneys appointed to represent the state do so in a transparent and cost-efficient process?" Heath asked.