CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A tube of sunblock protection has been sent to West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw in anticipation that an open government bill in the state Legislature will become law.
Steve Cohen, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said he delivery was made to West Virginia's chief legal officer to dramatize the need for reform in his hiring practices.
"Since Darrell deals in the dark, this may offer him some protection if the heat of public scrutiny is too much for the attorney general," Cohen said. "But a Sunshine law will keep West Virginia taxpayers from getting burned."
Delegates Eustace Frederick, D-Mercer, and Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, introduced House Bill 2239, a measure similar to one which nearly passed last year. The bill would force the attorney general to competitively bid contracts with lawyers he hires to file lawsuits.
Cohen points to official campaign finance records to show that "this attorney general hires personal injury lawyer friends who bankroll the McGraw political machine."
Cohen also noted a lawsuit in which "four law firms that delivered more than $40,000 in campaign cash to McGraw were seemingly rewarded with a $3.3 million legal fee from him.
"Without the bright light of public scrutiny, West Virginians can expect McGraw to cut more of these secret, backroom, sweetheart deals," Cohen said. He questions why McGraw even needs to hire outside counsel "when we taxpayers already give him a legal staff of roughly 200."
Cohen said CALA also is distributing to state legislators copies of an "open government" bill recently passed by the Mississippi Senate which applies to the hiring practices of the attorney general in the Magnolia State.
"Mississippi is one step away from shining a brighter light on the practices of its Attorney General's office," wrote John O'Brien on LegalNewsline.com earlier this month.
"This will give us a little bit of sunshine," said Mississippi Sen. Charlie Ross upon passage of his bill.
Just as in West Virginia, questions were raised when the attorney general hired a campaign contributor, Joey Langston of Boonesville, Miss., to file a lawsuit. Half of the $14 million legal fee paid to Langston's firm for the suit was split with another firm that had contributed to the attorney general's campaign.
CALA is also drawing lawmakers' attention to the national observance of Sunshine Week, which is March 11-17. Started in 2002 by the journalism profession to promote the importance of open government, it coincides with the end of West Virginia's 2007 legislative session.
"What a timely message West Virginia can send the nation about reforming the system," Cohen said.
McGraw did not return calls seeking comment.