CHARLESTON – A state legal reform group is praising the efforts of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey for the money his office has returned to the state’s General Revenue Fund since he took office.
Last week, Morrisey’s office sent $1 million back to the general fund and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s office to help reduce the backlog of drug tests at the West Virginia State Police crime lab.
That was sixth time since Morrisey took office in 2013 that the AG’s office has voluntarily returned money to the state’s general fund. The total now stands at $34.5 million. In April, the office sent $10 million to spur drug abuse treatment and to reduce that drug test backlog.
“We must eliminate the backlog of drug tests awaiting analysis at the state crime lab,” Morrisey said. “Expediting these test results will expedite justice and help prosecutors put drug traffickers in prison.”
In a press release, Morrisey said he recognizes his office is not the arbiter of how these funds are spent, but he remains hopeful the additional $1 million will be used to dramatically reduce the backlog. The money will be transferred from the office’s Consumer Protection Fund.
The AG’s office returned the $10 million in April, $5 million in March, $2 million in 2015, $9 million in 2014 and $7.5 million in 2013.
“We applaud Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s good-government, transparency driven initiatives that have saved West Virginia taxpayers’ money and returned it to the state’s general revenue fund,” said Roman Stauffer, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. “This is a welcome change from the good ol’ boy (former AG Darrell) McGraw era days when these dollars would have been used for taxpayer funded re-election activities.”
Morrisey campaign spokeswoman Kayla Berube said the issue is an important one to the AG.
"Attorney General Morrisey has drawn from his many years of private sector experience to implement new policies and procedures that increase efficiency and save taxpayer dollars,” Berube said. “To date, the office has voluntarily returned over $34 million to the state’s general fund in part due to these quality-driven practices.”
Berube said Morrisey believes the money belongs to the people.
“Money earned in consumer protection settlements is returned to the state's general fund in hopes of alleviating some of the tax burden on hardworking West Virginia families – a stark contrast to liberal Doug Reynolds' record of voting to raise taxes and fees 16 times,” she said, referring to Morrisey's Democratic challenger in the Nov. 8 election. “Recently, Morrisey has also asked that some $11 million returned to the state by his office be used to address the drug crime backlog and provide treatment for those who need it most."
McGraw, who was AG for 20 years before Morrisey defeated him in the 2012 office, often was criticized for how his office set up settlements to have the money appropriated to his office rather than to the state general fund for the Legislature to decide its use.
In 2012, McGraw used part of a $25 billion national mortgage settlement to open a satellite AG office in Martinsburg just months before the election in which he lost to Morrisey. McGraw had tried to open the office previously, but the state Legislature wouldn’t provide the funding.
Also in 2012, McGraw presented a check to Legal Aid of West Virginia, allowing the nonprofit organization to continue to operate its office for Logan and Mingo counties for the next three years. That money also came from the mortgage settlement.
Through the first six months of 2012, McGraw’s office spent more than $400,000 on advertising
In 2007, McGraw presented a $10,000 check to the Charleston Black Ministerial Alliance for its Jabez Project from a $10 million Oxycontin settlement. From February to August, the AG’s office handed out more than $1 million to groups from the Oxycontin settlement. That followed a February promise from Chief Deputy AG Fran Hughes to the state Legislature that the office would stop doing so.
In late 2006, McGraw presented a $40,000 to the Clay Center in Charleston for the “Sesame Street Presents: The Body” exhibit. That money was from a 2004 settlement over a blood pressure medication.
In 2004, McGraw was criticized for how he handled a $10 million prescription drug settlement, which allowed him to spend it as he saw fit. It was mostly used for day report centers for non-violent criminals, and $500,000 went to the University of Charleston for a pharmacy school.
According to WV CALA, McGraw spent nearly $1 million of state settlement funds in 2004 on television advertisements that appeared to be geared toward building public recognition of the McGraw name during an election year. His brother Warren also was running for a seat on the state Supreme Court that 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,’” former WV CALA Executive Director Richie Heath said in 2012 about the 2004 spending.
And twice during the final years of McGraw’s time as AG, the federal government decided he was wrong to keep funds recovered in lawsuits in which he represented state agencies. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ordered funds that would normally be appropriated to the state withheld to cover the amount it says it was owed from settlements with Purdue Pharma and Dey LP.
Soon after Morrisey took office, the state Legislature passed a law establishing a new precedent for how settlement funds recovered in lawsuits are handled. It sent $7,459,000 from the AG’s Consumer Protection Recovery Fund to the state’s General Revenue Fund. Of that money, $3.5 million was directed to the Department of Health and Human Resources’ Consolidated Medical Service Fund for behavior health problems. Also, $1.6 million was sent to the Higher Education Policy Commission, and $500,000 was sent to the Department of Commerce.
“In addition to returning over $30 million to the general revenue fund, Attorney General Morrisey’s outside counsel policy has saved taxpayers over $4 million in payments to outside lawyers hired to represent the state,” Stauffer said. “The McGraw era policy of million dollar payouts to campaign donors and supporters no longer exists under Attorney General Morrisey.”