CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) - A bill that would establish stricter rules for the West Virginia Attorney General's office has passed the House Judiciary Committee.
House Bill 4490, also known as the Attorney General Ethics and Accountability Act, would ban the attorney general from working on lawsuits against companies or individuals that contributed to his election campaign. It passed the committee by a 13-7 vote Monday.
Current Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican, says the Democrat-led Legislature is being a bully.
"It is nothing but partisan politics when you draft a bill outlining a so-called 'conflicts of interest policy' that only applies to one office in state government," Morrisey spokeswoman Beth Ryan said Monday night. "Lawmakers, the governor, members of the Board of Public Works and members of the judiciary should all be subject to the same conflicts of interest standards.
"The other irony of this legislation is that it targets the only person in state government who has gone much further than ethics rules in West Virginia require to establish a model to address potential or perceived conflicts."
Ryan also said the bill "will likely cost the state many millions of dollars in outside counsel costs, and it will be subject to constitutional challenges because it irresponsibly allows private lawyers to represent the state in legal matters without any supervision whatsoever from the state."
"Private lawyers will enrich themselves at taxpayers' expense and the Attorney General's Office's new competitive bidding policy for hiring outside counsel - which has already saved the state more than $1.5 million in legal fees - would be scrapped," Ryan said. "We can no longer afford to return to the days when private attorneys and legislators acted in cahoots to enrich themselves at taxpayers' expense."
Ryan also called the proposal "a dangerous and unprecedented experiment and shows just how out of touch the West Virginia Democrat House leadership is with the public."
"Equally important, this bill seeks to restrict the Attorney General's authority and stop the Office's efforts to fight for West Virginian's Second Amendment rights, challenge the EPA and block President Obama's job-killing agenda that hurts West Virginians," she said. "Citizens want government to operate openly and honestly, not with the kind of petty partisan politicking typically seen in Washington, D.C."
The issue started earlier this year when reports showed that Morrisey had accepted post-election campaign contributions from Cardinal Health, which his office is suing. And Morrisey's wife is a lobbyist for Cardinal in Washington.
Soon thereafter, Morrisey's office established its own conflict of interest policy in which the AG would self-report any potential conflicts to Chief Deputy AG Dan Greear, who would decide whether Morrisey should step away from the issue.
Morrisey stepped away from his office's suit against Cardinal in July. Former Attorney General Darrell McGraw originally filed the lawsuit against Cardinal in 2012, alleging the company shipped excessive pain medication to southern West Virginia, fueling prescription drug abuse in the area.
Reports show Cardinal donated $2,500 to Morrisey's inauguration fund, and that Cardinal executives gave $4,000 to Morrisey's campaign in 2012.
Other aspects of HB4490 would not allow Morrisey to file amicus briefs without approval from the Speaker of the House, the state Senate President and the governor. It also would establish further rules for hiring outside lawyers, and it would set rules for the Legislature to determine how settlement money would be distributed.
Fellow Republicans were quick to come to Morrisey's defense.
"Liberal Democrats in our Legislature are more concerned with harming the Office of Attorney General than making sure our citizens and government are defended from threats inside and outside this state," state Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas said. "Unable to win at the ballot box, Obama supporters in the state Legislature believe that destroying the office and voting to keep it from auditing and reviewing the activities of every part of state government is a tool of revenge."
Lucas said HB4490 is "an undisguised attempt to take away the rights and duties" the state Attorney General has had for 150 years.
"It's sad," Lucas said. "For years, the Attorney General's office ran unfettered, wasting millions and suing companies to force them from the state."
That was a reference to McGraw, who Morrisey defeated in 2012. Republicans frequently criticized McGraw for its use of settlement money and a propensity for suing businesses.
"Now, Patrick Morrisey uses this office to go to the U.S. Supreme Court and fight for the Second Amendment, against ObamaCare, and keeping D.C. away from shutting down our coal mines," Lucas continued. "That's the work liberals are trying to end today. Faced with an honest civil servant in Patrick Morrisey, Democrats fear for their elected offices.
"Taxpayers will come to the polls this November, ready to install more new, honest leaders like Patrick Morrisey. We proudly stand with Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, with freedom, and with the Constitution of this state."