Group wants W. Va. lawmakers to follow Mississippi's lead

John O'Brien Mar. 3, 2008, 1:41pm



CHARLESTON, W. Va. - Recent scandals may not make Mississippi seem like much of a legal role model, but a West Virginia legal reform group would like to see its state take some of the same measures.

Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse thinks West Virginia's Legislature should emulate a sunshine law geared towards state contracts given by the Attorney General's office that is working its way through the Mississippi system.

"Both houses in the Magnolia State passed a sunshine measure to govern their attorney general's activities, and the House bill passed on a roll call of 119-1," said Steve Cohen, Executive Director of CALA. "Attorney General Darrell McGraw should be subject to the same accountability."

CALA is upset with McGraw's 2004 settlement with Purdue Pharma that provided more than $3 million extra to private practice attorneys hired to represent the State. Cohen said taxpayers already pay for a staff of 200 in McGraw's office.

McGraw has responded to similar calls for action by CALA by claiming it disguises itself as a grassroots organization when it is really funded by large corporations. CALA's tax status prevents it from having to disclose its donors.

Cohen says a sunshine law is pending in the state Senate. It has 18 co-sponsors in the 34-member body.

In Mississippi, Attorney General Jim Hood's campaign donors have not been doing any favors for his public image.

Booneville attorney Joey Langston, whose firm has donated more than $100,000 to Hood's two campaigns, recently pleaded guilty to attempting to bribe a state judge. He says he offered support for a federal judgeship to Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Bobby DeLaughter in exchange for a favorable ruling in a dispute over attorneys fees between William Roberts Wilson, Jr., and Richard "Dickie" Scruggs.

Scruggs, also a contributor of Hood's, is scheduled for a March 31 trial on charges that he attempted to bribe Lafayette Circuit Judge Henry Lackey with $40,000 in a dispute over at least $26.5 million in attorneys fees from Hurricane Katrina cases.

Langston and Scruggs have also donated $440,000 to the Democratic Attorneys General Association, which donated the same amount to Hood's campaigns.

Timothy Balducci, another campaign contributor, pleaded guilty to the alleged Katrina fees scheme, as did his business partner Steven Patterson, a former state Auditor. Balducci also claims Scruggs offered him and Patterson $500,000 to attempt to sway Hood's decision to criminally prosecute State Farm Insurance Cos. over its claims-handling practices after Katrina.

Scruggs, Balducci says, was worried a criminal indictment would interfere with civil settlements worth millions in fees to the Scruggs Katrina Group.

Hood hired Langston's firm, for which Balducci worked at the time, to pursue a civil case against MCI. MCI eventually settled the suit, which claimed it owed the State back taxes, for $100 million and paid $14 million in attorneys fees.

Hood also hired Langston's firm for his case against Zyprexa-maker Eli Lilly, against which McGraw has also filed suit. Balducci originally worked on the case, too, but left The Langston Law Firm. Hood had to release Langston from the case after Langston's guilty plea, which carries a maximum prison sentence of three years.

Cohen cited a recent Wall Street Journal article that claimed the Attorney General's power "ought to be motivated by evidence and the law, not by the profit motives of private tort lawyers and the campaign needs of an ambitious attorney general."

McGraw's chief deputy attorney general, Fran Hughes, has not thought much of CALA's suggestions in the past.

"It works its sophisticated deception aimed at duping West Virginians into believing that only by giving up their rights to access to the courtroom can the State have economic development," Hughes wrote in a letter last June. "Unchecked and unfettered corporate power accountable only to shareholders is the real threat to fairness for all citizens."

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