CALA: McGraw staged media blitz in Eastern Panhandle

John O'Brien Jul. 26, 2007, 9:40am



MARTINSBURG - Attorney General Darrell McGraw's ever-increasing presence in the state's Eastern Panhandle was the subject of a watchdog organization's speech Thursday.

Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse executive director Steve Cohen told the Martinsburg Rotary that McGraw is trying to shore up a political weakness in the state's fastest growing area.

Cohen pointed to the testimony of Debra Whanger, who was fired from her position as consumer affairs coordinator after McGraw's 2004 re-election campaign. Whanger claimed McGraw spent $142,000 in public funds on trinkets to promote the McGraw name in the Eastern Panhandle.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Fran Hughes called Whanger a rogue employee and cancer, and Whanger sued after being fired for ordering the $142,000 in trinkets. She claims she was told to, and the two sides agreed to a $125,000 settlement.

McGraw is also interested in opening a regional office in Martinsburg.

We have statistics showing the number of complaints, and Martinsburg is low in accessing the services that our office offers," Hughes said. "It was really skewed, and it doesn't make sense given the population."

Also, McGraw recently gave a Jefferson County substance abuse-prevention group $50,000 from his controversial settlement with Purdue Pharma. Cohen said McGraw later staged an anti-crime crusade in Martinsburg "to tie himself to law enforcement."

"West Virginia will continue to be at the bottom of state rankings for growth with an attorney general who appears to be acting outside the law," Cohen said.

West Virginia's legal climate was recently ranked the worst for business by Directorship and Forbes magazines.

The money McGraw handed out was earned in 2004, when McGraw settled allegations against Purdue Pharma that its prescription painkiller OxyContin put a strain on the state's Medicaid budget by creating addicts.

The four-term Democrat never handed the money over to the Department of Health and Human Resources or state Legislature, choosing instead to dole out the funds himself.

The federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services wrote the DHHR May 15, asking where its percentage of the $10 million settlement is. The CMS provides 73 cents of every dollar the state spends on Medicaid. Hughes has said the settlement was arranged to prevent the federal government from getting anything.

"The State of West Virginia's methodology in arranging its settlement does not change the nature of the settlement nor the (DHHR) Secretary's obligation to account for overpayments," the letter says.

"Please advise CMS of any reason you may offer for which it should not issue a disallowance against the Medicaid program of the State of West Virginia in the amount of the settlement."

The DHHR backed up McGraw's stance in its response to the CMS, which says a withholding of the disputed amount may occur.

"Darrell McGraw's abuse of lawsuit settlement money is jeopardizing federal funding for our state's poor and disabled," Cohen said.

Cohen expressed a need for a sunshine law for easier access to McGraw's office and his "questionable hiring practices."

In 1995, McGraw hired lawyers on a contingency fee to sue tobacco companies even though he was specifically told by the judge handling the lawsuit that it was illegal. The lawyers ended up being paid $33.5 million.

In his 2004 settlement with Purdue Pharma, trial lawyers given state power were paid more than $3 million of a $10 million settlement.

"Forbes is just one of five recent national surveys where West Virginia woefully lags behind other states because of its legal climate," Cohen said. "Reform in the attorney general's office is one important place to improve our prospects."

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