CALA: Backers of W. Va. campaign finance bill hypocrites

John O'Brien Jul. 17, 2008, 10:45am




CHARLESTON, W. Va. (Legal Newsline) - It looks like West Virginia's contentious election season of 2004 has not been forgotten four years later -- and its legacy is still causing controversy.

State legal reform group Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse is furious with the recent passage and subsequent Gubernatorial signing of a campaign finance disclosure law that would require groups that spend more than $5,000 on advertisements to reveal their financial backers.

Millions of dollars were spent on a hotly contested Supreme Court race in 2004, and proponents of the law says the recently passed version clarifies a 2005 election reform law passed in response.

"Those pushing this new law, where were they four years ago?" said CALA executive director Steve Cohen, who worked as Justice Brent Benjamin's campaign manager in 2004.

Cohen is still upset that an anti-Benjamin group called "West Virginia Consumers for Justice" never fully revealed its sources. Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship spent more than $3 million of his own money on a group called "And For the Sake of the Kids," but made that knowledge public three weeks before the November election.

West Virginia Consumers for Justice's largest backer was a group that called itself "Consumer Attorneys of West Virginia." The group spent more than $1 million portraying Benjamin as pro-business.

Its spokesperson was Charleston attorney Tim Bailey. One of the attorneys at his firm, Carrie Webster, was the driving force behind the recently signed bill. She is a Democrat in the House of Delegates.

"CALA is at risk of facing disclosure of what I would assume are mostly out-of-state contributors," Webster has said, according to a report in the Charleston Gazette. "My position in 2008 and in 2005 are the same: Money that comes in to the election process should be disclosed."

Webster could not be reached for comment.

"While the disclosure requirements are unambiguous about third-party political ads, to this day we do not know who pumped $2 million into West Virginia Consumers for Justice for that highly public campaign," Cohen said.

Cohen said the law will help Attorney General Darrell McGraw, a frequent target of criticism from CALA who is running for re-election this year against Republican Charleston attorney Dan Greear.

By forcing groups to reveal their hidden identities, Cohen feels some will be hesitant to donate against McGraw for fear of retribution.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Fran Hughes has long claimed CALA is an arm of out-of-state business interests. The vice president of the West Virginia Association for Justice (formerly the state's Trial Lawyers Association) also supported the law.

"An out-of-state special interest group should not be allowed to spend whatever they want to influence the outcome of a West Virginia election without disclosing who they are and who they represent," Michael Romano said.

Cohen also feels Webster may have been acting with her best personal interests in mind when she championed the bill.

Webster works for the Charleston law firm Bucci Bailey & Javins, which was hired by McGraw to pursue a lawsuit against VISA and MasterCard. The firm is one of four to represent the State, with both in-state firms (the other is Wheeling's Wexler Toriseva Wallace) featuring McGraw contributors.

The four firms stand to collect nearly $4 million in attorneys fees in a settlement that would provide discounts on "Energy Star" home appliances during scheduled sales.

Cohen also noted that Webster's husband, Greg Skinner, is a member of McGraw's staff.

The controversy may end up -- where else? -- in court.

Cohen said a challenge to the law will prove it is a violation of First Amendment rights.

"West Virginians are intelligent people who can interpret campaign information on their own without the legislature and Governor effectively narrowing their access to information," he said.

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