By RICHIE HEATH
CHARLESTON -- Have you ever wondered why Mountain State voters, seemingly, need much more consumer protection education right around election time?
Every four years, Attorney General Darrell McGraw's office conveniently finds some sort of reason for increasing its "public education" spending when Darrell McGraw's name is on the election ballot.
In 2004, McGraw spent nearly $1 million of state settlement funds on television advertisements that appeared to be geared towards building public recognition of the McGraw name during an election year.
In the previous four years, the Attorney General's office had never spent more than $50,000 on television advertisements, prompting one major state newspaper to call McGraw's spending "an insult to the taxpayers' intelligence."
McGraw's office has also been criticized for spending tens of thousands of state dollars on trinkets - such as key chains, bumper stickers and even pill boxes - which bear McGraw's name.
And former employees of the Attorney General's office previously have testified under oath that spending of state funds on such "consumer protection" efforts was specifically coordinated to help McGraw's election prospects.
This year looks like more of the same from Attorney General McGraw.
Through a series of Freedom of Information requests, West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse has found that Attorney General Darrell McGraw's office spent more than $430,000 of state settlement funds this year on advertisements which promote McGraw's name as he simultaneously runs for re-election. For this election cycle, the Attorney General's office has already spent almost three times as much money on advertising and promotional items as it did during all of last year.
Darrell McGraw's questionable use of state settlement funds on advertisements and promotional materials has prompted one state newspaper to criticize the Attorney General for "campaigning on our 'dime'" for years. Another paper questioned McGraw's authority to personally appropriate state funds. While our state Constitution vests the Legislature with the "power of the purse," McGraw has unilaterally spent state settlement funds on a "satellite" office in the politically important Eastern Panhandle - a proposal which state lawmakers have previously refused to fund.
McGraw has even seen fit to "donate" a whopping $1 million in state funds to one of the Attorney General's pet projects, an election-year handout that has raised questions from state lawmakers. Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo (D-Kanawha) has pointed out that the Legislature, and not McGraw, should be appropriating state settlement funds. Senate Finance Chair Roman Prezioso (D-Marion) notes McGraw's actions have been "a long-standing problem," and adds that any state settlement funds "should go through the right channels and not through [McGraw's] office."
In fact, McGraw's actions in one recent lawsuit settlement could soon cost West Virginia millions of dollars in Medicaid funding for elderly and disabled citizens. That's because McGraw improperly withheld settlement funds from his state agency clients in a failed attempt to evade paying money owed to the federal government. McGraw instead gave $3.3 million to the private lawyers handling the case - who contributed heavily to the Attorney General's re-election campaign - and distributed the rest of the state's money as he saw fit.
Federal courts have since rejected McGraw's handling of the settlement. As a result, The Charleston Daily Mail writes that McGraw has "exposed his client - ultimately, the taxpayers - to a multi-million dollar liability."
As the state's chief legal officer, Darrell McGraw owes a duty to his clients - all West Virginians - to ensure that state settlement funds are properly appropriated for the greatest benefit of affected state residents, and not McGraw's political prospects. Unfortunately, McGraw's unacceptable actions over the years show that he cannot be trusted with such enormous power. That's why West Virginians deserve a process providing greater legislative oversight when it comes to spending of state settlement funds. West Virginians also deserve an explanation from Darrell McGraw.
Heath is executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.