Dark money and bullying tactics at the state Capitol

By Stephen New | Mar 19, 2019

CHARLESTON – For 25 years now, West Virginia and her citizens have been victimized by a ruthless, unrelenting attack. 

Why? Because corporate billionaires want to increase their profits at the expense of our state's reputation, our bank accounts and our constitutional rights.

Even worse? They don't have the guts to admit they're behind the attack.  Instead, they hide in the shadows and pump millions into dark money campaigns fronted by their henchmen and puppet politicians.

This effort has been led by the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) and Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA). Both claim to be "grassroots" organizations. They're not. Established in 1986, ATRA's "members are largely Fortune 500 companies with direct financial stake in restricting lawsuits” including “the tobacco, insurance, chemical, auto and pharmaceutical industries” (Center for Justice and Democracy). ATRA employee Neal Cohen led the effort to establish state CALAs. The Washington, D.C., PR firm APCO Worldwide was paid millions to create CALAs to "give the appearance of a groundswell of public desire to alter the legal system." Funding for CALAs comes from the same big corporate special interests (Center for Justice and Democracy).  

West Virginia CALA started operating in 1994. From Day 1, its leaders have refused to tell state residents who is behind the organization. CALA has stood right there with ATRA, issuing statements in support of the other's fake studies, legislative efforts and PR stunts.

If there was any doubt how incestuous it is, you need to look no further than political operative Greg Thomas. Thomas, who gained notoriety for heading Don Blankenship's dark money And for the Sake of the Kids campaign, serves as the spokesperson for one and the lobbyist for the other. As a political consultant, Thomas has been front and center as ATRA, CALA and their top-secret funders have funneled millions in dark money into West Virginia elections to get the politicians who support their agenda elected.

In that agenda, ATRA/CALA want West Virginia lawmakers to eliminate and restrict important laws that hold corporations accountable when state consumers, workers and small businesses are harmed. The changes they've demanded restrict our 7th Amendment right to trial by jury, limiting our individual rights and liberties.

Even more outrageous, the changes shift the financial obligations from the corporations responsible onto the backs of taxpayers. The effort has included shoddy facts and fake studies that attack our state in national media, including ATRA's widely discredited Judicial Hellhole campaign.  

Elizabeth Thornburg found that “the explicit goal [of the Hellhole Report] is to appeal to the public as voters, to scare state politicians into making pro-defendant changes in the law in order to make the label go away . . . [they] are selected in whatever way suits ATRA’s political goals. The choice is not based on research into the actual conditions in the courts.”  (Elizabeth Thornburg, “Judicial Hellholes, Lawsuit Climates and Bad Social Science,” West Virginia Law Review, Vol. 110 No. 3)   

The Hellhole Report has been wielded like a club since the early 2000s. They promised the attacks would cease if lawmakers gave them what they wanted. They haven't.

Every time a bill was passed, ATRA/CALA came back for more. Even after receiving almost everything on their wish list in 2015, the attack has continued.  

We were just moved from the primary list to the "watch list." Now we're still being told to give them what they want or be moved back onto the main list.  

It doesn't even matter if perceived "problems" in the system are fixed or don't exist. 

 ATRA/CALA still demands an intermediate court even though appeals have declined more than 68 percent over the last 20 years. We don't need it. Its creation violates fundamental conservative values by expanding state government and wasting millions in tax dollars.  

Still, there's Greg Thomas demanding that it be created. The argument against medical monitoring cases is that plaintiffs were using the money to buy trucks and take trips. A negotiated version actively supported by Senate leadership addressed that concern and passed unanimously in the Senate in 2016 and 2017. The House passed that same version this year, following stakeholder negotiations. That bill also passed unanimously. 

Greg Thomas and ATRA/CALA were never part of the discussion, but worked aggressively to derail the bill in the session's final days. Why? Because fixing the concern isn't enough--they want to eliminate all claims even when individuals have been exposed to dangerous toxins that put their lives at risk and need medical testing. It's wrong.

Their promises in exchange for these bad bills haven't panned out either. Lower insurance premiums for doctors, employers and consumers? That hasn't happened. Economic development and new jobs? That hasn't happened either. What new jobs have been created – other than whomever Thomas hires to help him? 

The jobs aren't there because lawmakers have been duped by these fake promises and ignored what will grow the economy – better infrastructure, better roads, better broadband and a workforce ready for 21st century jobs.

Lawmakers who don't vote their way get bullied. Thomas even told GOP legislators to vote his way or he would "primary" them in the 2020 elections – undoubtedly paid for with the same dark money behind ATRA/CALA.  

Lawmakers should be able to vote for their constituents' best interests without being threatened in the capitol with electoral defeat by a paid political operative supported not by the voters but by goodness knows who.

West Virginians should demand these attacks stop now. Our rights need to be protected, and corporate CEOs need to stop lining their pockets at our expense. No one elected Greg Thomas or his dark money funders.  It is time to send them and their fake studies packing. Stand up and say, "No more!"

New is the president of the West Virginia Association for Justice

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Organizations in this Story

American Tort Reform Association West Virginia Association for Justice West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse

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