Lewis' AG campaign ready to escalate

John O'Brien Sep. 4, 2007, 4:22pm



MORGANTOWN, W. Va. - With Labor Day in the rearview mirror, Hiram Lewis says the race to the West Virginia Attorney General's office can begin.

"Labor Day kind of kicks off the political season, so to speak," said Lewis, a Republican candidate for the position who looks headed for a second showdown with Darrell McGraw.

"(My campaign) is going pretty good. We're doing our second direct mail piece right now. Our first, we were very encouraged with our results. We have some pretty important people in politics in the state behind us."

Lewis and McGraw battled in 2004, resulting in the closest Attorney General's vote in state history. Both received 50 percent of the vote, with the incumbent Democrat grabbing 5,307 more of the nearly 703,000 votes.

So if history is any indication, the two may be gearing up for another heated race over the next 14 months. Both were unopposed in the 2004 primaries, so they were able to start the jawing early.

By October, both were showing feelings of contempt toward the other. According to a report by the Charleston Gazette, McGraw would not sit next to Lewis or respond to his questions during a meeting with the newspaper's editors.

Lewis responded by inviting McGraw to a public debate. McGraw did not show, and Lewis instead debated a man in a chicken suit.

Also, Lewis was critical of McGraw in claiming he was using money from settlements that was placed into his consumer education fund to promote the McGraw name. Darrell's brother Warren was running for Supreme Court Justice that year, though he lost to Brent Benjamin.

Lewis calls McGraw's consumer education fund a political slush fund, while McGraw says he is merely following the structure of court-approved settlements.

"I was directly involved with the last slush fund," Lewis said. "He spent $2 million out of his consumer education fund, which basically targeted the five areas in the state where his name recognition was poor."

Expected to be a hot issue during this campaign is McGraw's 2004 settlement with Purdue Pharma. McGraw's office represented three state agencies that claimed they were harmed by Purdue Pharma misrepresenting the drug OxyContin's addiction capabilities.

Specifically, the state Department of Health and Human Resources claimed the creation of OxyContin addicts put a strain on the state's Medicaid budget, of which nearly 75 cents of every dollar spent is supplied by the federal government.

But McGraw structured the $10 million settlement in a way that stipulated his office keep all of it. Had the DHHR received its share, the federal government would have retained its portion -- $4.1 million, according to calculations.

Recently, the federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services informed the State that it will withhold that amount from its next Medicaid funding. The State plans to appeal, though critics like state Sen. Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha, feel the State will lose, creating a hole in the Medicaid budget.

Lewis, a 36-year-old Morgantown attorney and former Army Ranger, claims McGraw's appropriation of the settlement funds on things like a pharmacy school for the University of Charleston and transitional homes for substance abusers is politically motivated.

"We have lots of critics, and it's difficult to address their issues," McGraw said while presenting $10,000 from the settlement to the Charleston Black Ministerial Alliance. "What do you say? We're giving these groups this money per court order."

Meanwhile, Lewis says his campaign is going fine.

"We have been able to meet our goals and deadlines," he said. "Right now, we're on schedule to be able to come in January and mouth an aggressive campaign for the future of West Virginia."

Lewis' campaign is geared around the idea of the office becoming more involved with criminal prosecution in order to help local law enforcement agencies combat problems like drugs and sexual predators. It's a power the office does not currently have, though McGraw has asked the Legislature for it several times.

McGraw only becomes involved in criminal procedures if a case is appealed to the Supreme Court. After not being granted the power to bring charges in 1996, McGraw told the Gazette that he wanted the ability in order to file criminal charges against entities against which he had already filed a civil lawsuit.

"Every night on the news, you see a (methamphetamine) lab here, a meth lab there, a meth lab blowing up," said Lewis, who thinks putting the brakes on state lawsuits against businesses will make West Virginia able to economically grow more. "The sheriff is doing what he can do, and the prosecutor is doing what they can do but they are really overburdened in the war on drugs.

"They need someone to turn to."

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