'Everybody is afraid of' chief deputy AG, fired employee says

Steve Korris May 10, 2007, 2:00pm



CHARLESTON - Bars of black ink conceal statements that Chief Deputy Attorney General Fran Hughes made under oath in a lawsuit of a former employee who claimed she worked on Attorney General Darrell McGraw's re-election campaign on taxpayer time in 2004.

Hughes gave a 185-page deposition Feb. 19 to explain why she fired consumer affairs coordinator Debra Whanger during the campaign.

Less than a month after Whanger's attorneys questioned Hughes, McGraw and Whanger settled the suit. The $125,000 settlement was announced earlier this month.

Taxpayers may never know whether McGraw ran his campaign on public money. Whanger alleged that but elected not to prove it.

Nor will taxpayers ever know all of what Hughes said under oath.

Retired Circuit Judge L.D. Egnor of Huntington, who took the case after all Kanawha County circuit judges recused themselves, signed an order May 4 blacking out two portions of the deposition.

Still, nothing can conceal from taxpayers the truth at the heart of the case -- Hughes controls the Attorney General's office with a tight grip.

As Whanger expressed it in her own deposition, "I was afraid of Fran. Everybody is afraid of Fran."

The case closed without a peep from McGraw. He argued to Egnor that Whanger could not depose him because others terminated her and he merely ratified the decision.

Whanger's suit claimed that Hughes and McGraw made her a scapegoat in a controversy over $142,000 worth of promotional items, or "trinkets," for distribution at the state fair.

The office ordered the trinkets from Printing Press, on Woodward Drive.

During the campaign McGraw's opponent, Hiram Lewis, had requested records of state spending on the items.

Days later, Whanger lost her job. McGraw's office sent out a press release stating that Whanger spent the money without authority.

Hughes stated on a radio program that Whanger was "a rogue employee" and called her "a cancer that had to be cut out."

That November, McGraw won the election.

In 2005, attorneys Mark Atkinson and Paul Frampton Jr. filed suit for Whanger in Kanawha Circuit Court.

They wrote that her time "was almost exclusively dedicated to the reelection campaign efforts of the Attorney General."

"Plaintiff was instructed to concentrate her efforts in the counties targeted by the Attorney General's campaign plan and to distribute massive quantities of promotional items in those areas," the suit stated.

The attorneys placed in the record a letter that Printing Press vice president Sandy Underwood wrote to the state purchasing department on Aug. 18, 2004.

Underwood wrote that she met with Whanger, Paul Babbitt and Teena Booth on July 8, 2004.

"I asked if they needed to get bids or were we to proceed with the order," she wrote in the letter. "I was informed that they felt they would not need to get bids since this was going to be paid by 'settlement' money."

McGraw collects and spends proceeds of lawsuits that his office files and settles without legislative appropriations.

Underwood wrote that after Aug. 13, she was asked not to deliver any more items. She wrote that $141,814.61 remained due. She wrote that she had borrowed money to prepay her vendors.

"I regret having proceeded based on the verbal approval of personnel in the Attorney General's office," she wrote.

After Whanger filed suit, Underwood stated in a deposition that she knew Paul Babbitt was making the decisions at the July 8 meeting.

For McGraw, special assistant attorney general Christopher Morris deposed Whanger last Dec. 21.

Morris asked if she ordered $140,000 worth of items.

"That amount of items were purchased by a number - with the help of a number of people in the Attorney General's office," Whanger said. "That was not an activity I entered into by myself."

She said McGraw contacted her a week before she lost her job to tell her she had nothing to worry about.

"My termination was a shock," she said. "My children found out through the media that I had been fired."

She said that when the bill reached $100,000, she told coworker Tammy Arthur she was uncomfortable. She said Arthur told her to remember her instructions.

"When it came to the point of actually placing the phone call for the orders, I got permission from Tammy Arthur to do that," Whanger said.

Whanger said Arthur told her the amount was a drop in the bucket compared to a million the office had spent on television advertising.

She said Hughes told her McGraw was weak in the Eastern Panhandle.

"And then Tammy tells me it was probably more in the areas where Warren was weak rather than Darrell," Whanger said.

In 2004, Darrell McGraw's brother Warren McGraw ran for the Supreme Court of Appeals while Darrell McGraw ran for attorney general. Warren lost.

Whanger stated in her deposition that she wrote a memo to the office comptroller, Joe Clay.

"I wanted more people involved and I wanted people to know what was going on," she said. "I knew what was going on was wrong."

Morris asked if she participated anyway.

"I felt that I had no choice," Whanger said. "I feared for my job.

"Fran had asked me to do things that I knew were illegal and I wasn't going to be involved in that process any longer."

Morris asked if she told Hughes.

"No, Fran never gave me the opportunity," Whanger said. "It was, you get it done.

"I was afraid of Fran. Everybody was afraid of Fran.

"Fran said that she didn't care whether we had done anything illegal or not. She was mad about the amount of money that had been spent."

For Whanger, Atkinson deposed Hughes Feb. 19. He asked if Underwood said Babbitt made the decisions. Hughes said yes. He also asked if Underwood told the truth.

"I question her veracity," Hughes said.

Atkinson asked if e-mails mentioned Teena Booth. Hughes said Booth acted at Whanger's direction.

"When I questioned everyone that was present in the meeting, they all pointed the finger at Ms. Whanger," Hughes said.

Atkinson asked what happened to the items.

"They were transferred to a warehouse because we almost thought of them as being contraband," Hughes said.

Hughes went on to say Whanger told her they spent a million on TV.

"That was shocking to me," she said.

Atkinson asked why.

"One didn't have anything to do with the other," Hughes said.

She said when Whanger called it a drop in the bucket, she was angry.
Atkinson asked why she did not fire Whanger then.

"Because I felt sorry for her," Hughes said.

Atkinson asked if she told the Charleston Gazette that the West Virginia Wants to Know group harassed them with information requests.

"They slandered me on Steven Reed's show," Hughes said.

Black bars conceal the next page of the deposition.

Atkinson asked if there was any reason for Whanger to spend the money on her own.

"I can't understand how she could have done something like that. It is shocking," Hughes said.

Atkinson asked if she agreed that settlement money could be spent without bids.

"That falls within the attorney client relationship that I have with the Attorney General," Hughes said.

Atkinson asked if Tammy Arthur was related to McGraw. Hughes said yes, but that she was "not sure in what capacity."

Atkinson asked if it was her idea to run the TV ads. She said yes. He asked if it was her idea to mention McGraw's name in the ads. She said yes. He asked if it was her idea to spend a million dollars on the ads. She said yes.

"Who was ultimately responsible for what she did - you?" Atkinson asked.

"Well, yes," Hughes said.

"So instead of the buck stopping with you, you thought it stopped with her?" Atkinson asked.

"Had I known, it would have stopped with me," Hughes said.

Atkinson asked if she ever accepted gifts from lobbyists. Hughes said no. Atkinson asked if she called media outlets about West Virginia Wants to Know. She said yes. He asked who she called. She said media outlets called her to respond to allegations West the group made against the office.

She said Steve Reed allowed Wanda Carney of West Virginia Wants to Know to say she was McGraw's favorite little trinket.

She said she had a lawyer send a letter telling Reed she would sue if he ever again allowed anyone to intimate that she and McGraw had an affair.

Atkinson said he had no further questions.

"Have you made friends with people who also happen to be lobbyists?" Morris asked Hughes.

Hughes said yes.

"From time to time have those friends given you personal gifts?" Morris asked.

Hughes said yes.

Atkinson decided he had another question after all. He asked it and Hughes answered, but black ink conceals the exchange.

Egnor's order stated that the blacked out material in the deposition "is of no relevance to the conduct of the public's business ..."

He wrote that Hughes's right to privacy outweighed any public interest.

Hughes did not return calls to LegalNewsline.com seeking further comment on the case and depositions.

At a May 8 meeting of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Government and Finance, Board of Risk and Insurance Management Director Chuck Jones defended the $125,000 settlement. Jones said BRIM acted on the advice of outside counsel for McGraw's office and insurance underwriter AIG to settle rather than "take that chance" with a jury trial, according to a Gazette report.

"It was questionable whether or not she would have prevailed," Jones said, according to the Gazette.

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