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Conservative advocacy group sues U.S. Attorney over taxpayer-funded radio ads

CHARLESTON — A conservative group that supports criminal justice reform is suing the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia for information on taxpayer-funded radio ads targeting state lawmakers for their legal reforms.

The West Virginia chapter of Americans for Prosperity Foundation filed a lawsuit Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the U.S. Department of Justice after Mike Stuart, the U.S Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, ignored a Freedom of Information Act request from the advocacy group.

According to the court filing, AFP-WV filed an FOIA request April 1 with Stuart’s office for records pertaining to a public service announcement campaign that began airing Feb. 17 on statewide radio. According to a Feb. 15 press release, the ads — voiced by Stuart himself — explained his priorities, including fighting elder fraud and what he called his “tough on crime” efforts.

“It’s important we speak directly to the people of West Virginia,” Stuart said in February. “We are winning but bail reform and other so-called social justice initiatives risk reversing our progress. My office continues to work with a sense of urgency every day to hold drug dealers and violent offenders accountable and to protect West Virginia’s seniors from fraudsters.”

One of the ads doubles down on Stuart’s concerns about criminal justice reform just as the West Virginia Legislature was considering several reform packages. At least 12 criminal justice reform bills passed the Legislature by the end of the 60-day session on March 8, including efforts to reform bail, civil asset forfeiture, the creation of a sentencing commission, alternative sentencing for work release and expungement of past crimes.

Stuart used his ads to openly advocate against state-level legislation on criminal justice reform.

“We’re making progress, great progress, but trust me, it’s not because we’re hugging the bad guys,” Stuart said in one of the ads. “Bail reform and other social justice initiatives threaten to reverse course. There’s only one way to kill a snake. You got to take the head completely off.”

Jason Huffman, state director for AFP-WV, said the group wanted to see whether Stuart’s office had communicated with members of the Legislature or the governor’s office, any documents showing why they chose to run these kinds of ads, communications between Stuart’s office and broadcast media and anything showing how much it cost to create the ads and the method for which the ads were paid.

But AFP-WV has heard nothing but radio silence from Stuart’s Office.

“One of the most important traits of our republic is allowing the public access to information regarding decisions made by government officials,” Huffman said. “Failure to produce records when requested runs counter to an open and transparent government, which is essential for protecting and upholding our constitutional rights.

“In this instance, we are seeking to learn more about the decision of an unelected federal bureaucrat to spend taxpayer money advocating against state-level policy decisions,” Huffman said “This information we’re seeking is clearly within the parameters of a FOIA request. It is imperative that the government provides citizens their rightful access to this information so they can see how their tax dollars are being spent.”

Stuart was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia by President Donald Trump in 2017 after serving as the chairman of Trump’s state election campaign in 2016. Previously, Stuart was an attorney for Steptoe and Johnson and was chairman of the state Republican Party from 2010 to 2012.

It’s not the first time Stuart has been accused of using his federal office to advocate against state laws passed by the West Virginia Legislature and enforced by state officials. State Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt pushed back on a civil lawsuit brought by Stuart in 2018 against two hemp farms.

According to the West Virginia Record, Stuart accused the farms of violating the Controlled Substance Act and violating the state’s hemp law by transferring seeds across state lines. The state Department of Agriculture argued that there was no such prohibition in state code. Congress also adopted language in a 2018 spending bill to prevent federal agencies from interfering in hemp production. U.S. District Judge Robert Chamber dismissed Stuart’s lawsuit.

Americans for Prosperity is an advocacy group that focuses on free market public policy solutions. It typically advocates for fiscal responsibility, education choice and criminal justice reform.

A request for comment from Stuart was not returned.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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