CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) - The West Virginia House of Delegates on Monday passed a controversial bill that some say directly targets state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
The House voted 52-44 to pass House Bill 4490, also known as the Attorney General Ethics and Accountability Act.
Morrisey and others have called the bill nothing but partisan politics on behalf of Democratic legislative leaders. Morrisey said the passage of the bill would create a constitutional crisis.
"The Office of the Attorney General is deeply disappointed that the West Virginia House of Delegates today passed unconstitutional and highly partisan legislation," Morrisey spokeswoman Beth Ryan said Monday evening. "This bill targets one person in state government while not imposing similar standards on legislators or other Constitutional offices.
"House Bill 4490, as it currently stands, will cost the state many millions of dollars, jeopardize existing investigations and lawsuits, and compromises the Attorney General's ability to fight for the Second Amendment and jobs in West Virginia. If this bill passes, it will plunge the state into a constitutional crisis."
House Speaker Tim Miley, said the bill passed Monday contains "two basic elements: the proper management of taxpayer settlement funds, and procedures for an attorney general to follow when faced with a conflict of interest."
"When you strip away personalities and politics, it comes down to the simple question: Is this good public policy?" Miley said in a statement. "I truly believe this is."
The revised version of the bill that passed Monday did not include some sections of the original that Republicans and the state Chamber of Commerce had opposed.
Morrisey and Miley sparred via press statements last week about the measure, and Morrisey declined an invitation to appear before the House Judiciary Committee to express his concerns in person.
He did ask supporters - via Facebook - to contact lawmakers and ask them to vote against the bill.
"Blatant disregard for the (West Virginia) Constitution," he posted over the weekend. "The public is watching who votes for H.B. 4490, a pure partisan attempt to target the one person looking under the hood and not afraid to take on the establishment. How will people who vote for this bill defend it when it puts at risk ongoing investigations and cases? The bill also guts our consumer protection efforts."
Other posts said:
* "If authors of H.B. 4490 were serious about advancing government and ethics reforms, they would apply rules to all offices equally. We need to defeat this bill, then work seriously to codify our settlement money reforms and competitive bidding policy for outside counsel. That would be real reform."
* "Tell House of Delegate Democrats to vote against H.B. 4490, this blatantly unconstitutional, partisan power-grab and work on true ethics reforms that apply to every legislator, and statewide elected official. The public is watching this vote. Please call and email today! We need a few good Democrats to break the partisan divide in the WV House."
* "Oppose the Manchin amendment to H.B. 4490. It curtails my ability to fight for coal and protect the Second Amendment. Please email and call this weekend. This is in your hands if you can generate enough calls and emails to your legislators. If seven House Democrats break from the ranks, we will be able to continue our fight!"
On Monday after the bill passed, Miley maintained that the bill wasn't targeting Morrisey. Instead, it was aimed at the AG's office.
"As I have said before, this legislation is focused on the attorney general because among the West Virginia constitutional officers, the attorney general is unique," Miley said. "Being the legal representative of the state of West Virginia, the attorney general is both an executive and judicial officer who must balance constitutional duties with the attorney-client relationship."
The bill, as passed, would make it clear that the Legislature would distribute funds collected by the AGs office via settlements and awards. One section removed would have barred Morrisey from filing "friend of the court" legal briefs without permission from the governor and Legislature. Other earlier language removed from the bill would have barred the attorney general from overseeing lawsuits filed by his office against companies or individuals who contribute to his election campaign.
The bill says the AG would have to step aside from a case if he or an immediate family member received financial compensation or ever worked for a company being sued by his office. If a conflict exists, an outside lawyer would be appointed to oversee the case for the attorney general's office. The AG could not appoint a subordinate to oversee such a case.