Morrisey objects to proposed legislation

CHARLESTON- State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said a proposed bill in the Legislature would put undue burdens on his office and is urging lawmakers to vote it down.

House Bill 4490, also known as the Attorney General Ethics and Accountability Act, passed out, by committee substitute, of the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday.

The bill is calling for changes in how the attorney general is authorized in doing certain actions as well as how the office contracts for legal services, and when the attorney general should withdraw from certain procedures.

“(Tuesday), I sent a letter to Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, outlining significant concerns our office has regarding House Bill 4490,” Morrisey said in a press release. “This legislation creates a constitutional crisis and puts at risk the core functions of the Attorney General’s Office by changing the legal standards under which we can pursue claims and represent the state.”

Morrisey pointed out four areas with the bill he had issues with:

* It establishes new legal standards for one office but does not require legislators, the governor, Supreme Court of Appeals justices or other members of the Board of Public Works to adhere to the same rules, he said.

* The bill puts at risk ongoing investigations by his office that target corruption and violations of the state’s consumer protection laws, he said.

* The legislation would gut the attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division because funding would be dramatically reduced under HB 4490, Morrisey said.

* House Bill 4490 unconstitutionally seeks to grind to a halt the office’s efforts to protect the Second Amendment, fight for coal jobs and take on President Obama’s overreach by limiting the office’s ability to independently decide whether to file amicus briefs, he said.

“I urge Speaker Miley to take appropriate steps to halt the bill and prevent West Virginia from being thrown into a constitutional crisis,” Morrisey said.

Delegate John Ellem, R-Wood, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, said the bill went too far, especially in language trying to define what a conflict of interest might be and the circumstances the attorney general would have to recuse himself from a case.

Ellem also was concerned about language of the bill where the attorney general would have to get permission from certain parts of state government to do certain things.

“The language was too broad,” Ellem said. “I am very concerned.”

The attorney general mediates consumer complaints and this bill would almost prevent him from doing the work out of a fear of a conflict of interest, Ellem said.

Ellem said he tried to amend the language of the bill in committee, but his amendments did not pass. He is considering reintroducing them on the floor of the House when the bill is brought up.

West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse issued a press release calling the bill “a politically motivated piece of legislation aimed at shackling the ability of our attorney general to prosecute consumer protection violations.”

“House Bill 4490 will make it impossible for the attorney general to participate in legal actions against persons or organizations that have contributed to his campaign,” said Greg Thomas, executive director of WV CALA in a press release. “However, contingency fee outside counsel attorneys, who in the past have contributed heavily to campaigns for attorney general and then been rewarded with highly lucrative contingency fee contracts, are able to serve as outside counsel on behalf of the State of West Virginia.”

WV CALA is advocating for codifying limits on contingency fees for private attorneys hired to represent the state and support Morrisey’s self-imposed policy that limits payments to outside counsel attorneys.

Thomas said many of the same members of the House Judiciary Committee supporting this bill ignored the activities of former Attorney General Darrell McGraw, who the WV CALA said used his office to enrich his family and favor his campaign donors.

“It is clear that House Bill 4490 is politically motivated and does not address the serious problems of the McGraw era with outside counsel attorneys making millions through backroom contingency fee agreements on representing the State of West Virginia,” Thomas said.