Special to The News and Sentinel
Editor's note: One of the more intriguing races on Nov. 6 is the contest for West Virginia attorney general. Here is an introductory interview with candidate Patrick Morrisey to discuss his campaign.
* It's about one month to election day. What do you need to do over the next 30 days to convince West Virginians that you are the right choice for attorney general?
Patrick Morrisey, the Republican candidate for West Virginia attorney general, hands out campaign literature. Morrisey is running against incumbent Attorney General Darrell McGraw.
Morrisey: I think it's just talking to West Virginians about the important issues and challenges they face. Most importantly, West Virginia needs an attorney general willing to take on these Obama job-killing regulations. Our current attorney general has not been willing to do that; I will. That's issue No. 1, we have to make sure we put West Virginians back to work and an attorney general can play a very positive role in making that happen. No. 2, we have to make sure that voters in West Virginia know that there's an attorney general who is committed to restoring integrity back to the office of attorney general. That's critical, because we've seen all the misdeeds and the absolute waste of taxpayer spending in recent years. We have to do better and make sure we act with principle in that office, and it doesn't look like someone's in there just to get re-elected and feather his or her own nest.
* You mentioned putting people back to work. What specific role can the attorney general play in that process, in your opinion?
Morrisey: The attorney general could play a very positive role in helping the West Virginia economy and job promotion in the state. First and foremost, I think many people are aware that in the state of West Virginia, we've been suffering under the Obama EPA. The Obama EPA keeps issuing one job killing regulation after another. The attorney general of West Virginia should be out in front, very proactive, taking on those regulations. I would argue that if we had a very strong attorney general in such an important, energy-rich state, that we could be in a little bit better place in our economy because when the EPA were to issue these terrible regulations, they know that they have to go through West Virginia. Right now there's an absence, if you will, on the part of Darrell McGraw, and that makes it a lot easier for the federal government to run roughshod over our way of life. I think if you were to have an attorney general willing to challenge those regulations, that would help protect some more jobs in the state.
There are a lot of other things that could be done, as well. The attorney general has the ability to issue legal opinions, to help better clarify the regulatory structure in the state, and also proactively work with the governor and the Legislature on different initiatives that would create jobs. That's one of the reasons why in our campaign platform we've called on creating a jobs summit about three to four months into my tenure where we're going to identify all the onerous regulations that are facing state businesses and individuals. Then we're going to look to see how the attorney general can play a positive role to reduce the burden of those regulations, or make recommendations to the governor and the Legislature as to which ones need to be changed.
* Have you identified any regulations that you would start this initiative with?
Morrisey: I go back to the EPA. To me, this is issue No. 1. There were lawsuits that could have been filed by the state of West Virginia that were not filed, and I think it's because we have such an inactive attorney general. You look at the cross-state air pollution rule, that's No. 1, you look at the greenhouse gas regulation, that's No. 2. That's going to be an important issue. Obviously, I'm not supporting President Obama's re-election bid, but heaven forbid if he got re-elected, we need someone who's going to be out in front challenging these kinds of regulations relating to greenhouse gases.
We also have to be proactive about some of the new issues that are going to be coming. ... The fact is that in the Northern Panhandle, natural gas drilling is very important. We need to make sure there's an attorney general who's being reasonable, who clearly wants to work to promote clean air and clean water, but also is going to make sure that the new fracking regulations that the administration is trying to push are not going to be unreasonable on the West Virginia economy. ... This isn't going to be about one person's ideas. We're going to ask the citizens of West Virginia about their ideas about specific regulations that are onerous on West Virginia business, then we're going to evaluate that and think through how we can act in the best interests of consumers but also in ways that we can promote business in the state.
* Last month, a video surfaced in which your opponent appears to pull a camera out of a young man's hand who was videoing his appearance at a state festival. What are your thoughts on that action? What do you believe it says about your opponent?
Morrisey: I think it's unfortunate when you're a public official and you've been in office for 32 years and you're unwilling to debate, you're unwilling to answer basic questions in public. He acted as if he was almost afraid of the camera. The fact is everyone has a bad day. People make mistakes. I don't go off and criticize people for the mistakes they make. But then when you don't apologize for the actions and you let it sit, and you continue along your merry way, trying to pretend that nothing happened, that's really unfortunate. I think West Virginia can do better, and the reality is this particular incident is just one in a series of incidents that we've seen throughout Darrell McGraw's career. The fact is that just a few days before that, when we were doing a joint editorial board with a newspaper, Darrell McGraw said that he was "glad that settlement money was going to be spent in the middle of an election year." That's basically indicating that he's very happy that the taxpayers are financing his re-election campaign. I think that's wrong at every level, and I've indicated that I'm going to investigate that activity after I'm elected. The fact is that when you're a public official, you have to be honest, and your activities deserve to be trustworthy. Unfortunately, Darrell McGraw has crossed that line. I wish he would apologize to our staffer for grabbing the camera and yanking it away, and I also wish he would stop abusing the taxpayer money. ... It's something that just has to come to an end. It's unfortunate, and taxpayer money belongs to the taxpayers and the Legislature, not in the personal piggybank of the office of attorney general.
* What are your thoughts on the promotional item spending that is currently taking place in the attorney general's office? Some people believe the attorney general uses this tactic to help with his campaigns.
Morrisey: It looks like in 2012, Darrell McGraw may spend 10 times the rate of so-called consumer education spending that he did in 2011. Ten times the rate of a non-election year. At one news radio station, it looks like the spending went in 2010 from $47,000 to about $70,000 (in 2011) and this year, through August alone at one station, it went up to over $216,000. It's obscene, and it's being done to promote his re-election. That's not right on any level, and Democrats, Republicans and Independents need to unite and say when someone is this egregiously violating the public trust, they don't deserve re-election. So I've called on a couple basic reform steps. No. 1, you will not see trinkets with my name on it. That's not a big thing, but I think it's important. No. 2, all of that settlement money that comes back in, that needs to get returned to the state Legislature and to the taxpayers. That's where it belongs. ... The fact is we could use this for much better purposes in the state of West Virginia. And there are other reforms as well that we're looking to put into place.
I've really been disappointed in the attorney general for all these actions, and that's why newspapers around the state have roundly condemned him for his approach.
* What do you see as the attorney general's primary function?
Morrisey: No. 1, I think we want to continue vigorous consumer protection to make sure people in the state have confidence that if people are acting in a fraudulent manner or trying to take advantage of our senior citizens, that will not occur under a Patrick Morrisey Attorney General office. Consumer protection is important.
But the role of the office is so much broader than that. The attorney general should function as a general counsel to state agencies and programs and provide competent counsel on how those programs operate. We haven't seen that ... approach in recent years, as evident by the fact that even with respect to the state Medicaid program, Darrell McGraw had made mistakes costing taxpayers millions of dollars and putting Medicaid benefits at risk. What he did is he took that money, and because he didn't apply it back to the federal match and put it into his personal piggybank to distribute as he saw fit, the state of West Virginia is likely to lose millions of dollars, which compromises health care benefits. I think you need a competent counsel for the Medicaid program and all state programs, you need to maintain consumer protection, but also you need to make sure the attorney general is a forceful advocate of the state to protect jobs from Washington overreach. We just haven't had that in recent years and I would argue the biggest threats that West Virginia faces is coming from Barack Obama and from the Washington regulations that are crippling our way of life.
* Has your opponent upheld the role of the office, as you just described it?
Morrisey: I don't think so. I think he's done some good things, but his record is decidedly mixed. The fact is that I've praised him when he's done some positive things, but in reality he's failed to act in the most basic manner possible in the most important area, which is he won't defend the citizens of West Virginia against President Obama's EPA overreach and its job-killing regulations. He failed to lead West Virginia onto the multi-state lawsuit challenging Obamacare, he's not acted with integrity in the office. ... We have to do better in all those areas. I've thanked him for his public service and said after 32 years let's thank him, but it's time to move on. This is not intended to be a personal campaign but I think the fact is his record is not one that merits re-election.
* Within the attorney generals office, at times cases are farmed out to outside counsel. Should the attorney general have on staff lawyers capable of handling all types of activity in which the office may become involved - or is there a need to employ outside counsel from time to time for specialized matters, such as your opponent has done over the years? If so, how would you handle such contracts?
Morrisey: First of all, I would emphasize the use of internal counsel. That's why you have an office of attorney general, you have some good lawyers that can act on the state's behalf. That's the primary focus. But there may be some times where you need specialized expertise, or there's a particularly complex area of the law where you have to reach out and get some assistance. I don't have a problem with that.
I think Darrell McGraw has taken this concept way too far and he's weaponized these special assistant attorney generals in order to do his bidding. The fact is, you can have a better system to principally focus on using your internal counsel that are in the office, but when you do rely on outside counsel you change the way those attorneys are paid. I specifically called for a competitive bidding approach to how outside lawyers are hired ... (to) try and ensure the state is getting a reasonable price and good quality for the services that they're procuring. Competitive bidding I think would represent a sea change for how this office operates, because in some of the cases you see fees that are just excessive, and that's not what the citizens of West Virginia should be paying for. ... Let's make sure that the focus here is protecting West Virginia taxpayers from outrageous legal fees.
* Some people have argued that the way the attorney general awards these contracts now is through political favor. Would you operate the office in this manner?
Morrisey: The fact is, if you had a competitive bidding process, you would have more objective criteria in terms of how qualified law firms would obtain contracts from the state. I think it would represent a dramatic improvement from how Darrell McGraw cherry picks the lawyers. When we were at the editorial board interview, they asked him how do you pick lawyers. He said he knew the lawyers and could make the decision. That's not right. That's subjecting the office to abuse. What we need is a transparent process that lays out what the criteria will be as to how the office of attorney general will pick outside counsel. That's what we'll do which will help restore confidence to the office. People lack confidence in the office because he's just randomly picking his friends to represent him on different matters who just happen to be his campaign contributors. ... The fact is that we can do much better than that.
* You formerly resided in New Jersey. What prompted you to come to West Virginia?
Morrisey: I was working for the U.S. House of Representatives ... working on a lot of health care issues. ... When I went back into private practice, I started to say, 'Where am I going to put down roots.' ... I used to hike a lot on the Appalachian Trail, spent a lot of time in Harpers Ferry and Charles Town, just a beautiful part of the state. It was about an hour and 10 minutes from where I was working, so I decided this would be a wonderful place to live and put down roots. I became very involved in the community over the course of the past six years. ... I was involved in a project to rebuild downtown Harpers Ferry. So it was just really a lot of the state, the history and the area, a beautiful place to live. I feel really fortunate that during this campaign I've had the opportunity to travel to all 55 counties. ... I didn't have the good fortune of being born here, but I chose to move here because I love the state and I look forward to spending the rest of my life here.
* What kind of reception have you received from West Virginians?
Morrisey: It's been very positive. I think that people know that after you have someone in that office for 32 years, it's time for a change. You need someone in that office that's going to act with integrity, that has some new ideas. The fact is that I bring over 20 years of senior level legal experience to this position, serving as a health care lawyer in a national health care practice. I was the co-chair of one of those practices. That's really good experience when you combine that with my background in government, I think that could help the state a lot. People recognize that, and I also think people recognize that after 32 years, Darrell McGraw has done all the good he can do. He's done some positive things, but now it's time for him to move on.
The other point that I would make is that Darrell McGraw, because he's been so forceful in endorsing Barack Obama, people don't like that. People know that Darrell McGraw had the chance to take on Obama's EPA, to take on Obamacare, to take on other issues, but because of his close alliance with President Obama, that's hurt the state of West Virginia.
* Your opponent has suggested you would be a tool of big business and, as such, would not stand up for the best interests of West Virginians. How do you respond to that?
Morrisey: I'm going to vigorously pursue any violations of consumer protection and lawbreaking. The fact is that no one is going to have an easy time in the state of West Virginia if they commit a crime. ... At the same time, Darrell McGraw is arbitrary about how he handles some of these matters. I think it's important to engage in proactive education of businesses in the state so that they know what the rules of the road are. For Darrell McGraw, this consumer education function is about putting his own name on commercials. My position is different. I want to make sure that we bring individuals, consumers, businesses in and we educate them about the law so people can develop good compliance strategies. That's critical so that we can prevent these violations of law before they even occur. But the fact is that if anyone does break the law, we are going to be forceful in representing the state of West Virginia's interests.
This is just his excuse, his way to deflect attention away from the fact that he won't debate me and he won't engage in the campaign. And he knows he has to run away from his record and his endorsement of Barack Obama.
* Final question: Tell our readers something about yourself that often is overlooked or hasn't been talked about at all during your candidacy.
Morrisey: I would say this. A lot of the attention in this race gets focused on the current attorney general. ... The fact is that I've been very blessed to have a lot of really significant experience in the law. I've been in private practice for a long time, been a lawyer for over 20 years where I've held some of the most senior positions in the government. ... I bring a lot of good experience that could be applicable for the office of attorney general. I would argue that that experience is going to be better than Darrell McGraw's because the experiences I have are actually in the areas West Virginians care about: health care, challenging the EPA and knowing those issues. When you think of the office now, you think about it in this uni-dimensional role because Darrell McGraw spends nearly all of his time talking about consumer protection. We are going to keep vigorous consumer protections in place, but I think the office can be much bigger and better, and my background in health care and EPA-related matters ... that deserves some attention because those are not the experiences Darrell McGraw brings to bear. Most importantly, I'm going to act with integrity in the office ... and make it something West Virginians can be proud of.