WASHINGTON, D.C. - The American Tort Reform Association has long had West Virginia on its radar, so it should surprise no one that the state was one of five chosen to be surveyed on the transparency of its attorney general's office.
The organization already ranks the entire state as the No. 1 Judicial Hellhole in the country, and, according to the survey's results released Monday, the state's citizens are looking for change.
"Our survey is a first step in ATRA's renewed effort to shine more light on and demand greater accountability from our state attorneys general," ATRA President Tiger Joyce said. "There is overwhelming public support for much more transparency, and more than three-quarters of our survey respondents in West Virginia go so far as to support a national code of ethics to regulate the relationships between personal injury lawyers and state AGs."
West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw has been the subject of controversy during his time in office, particularly for his practice of hiring outside counsel and his appropriation of settlement funds.
McGraw hired lawyers on a contingency fee to sue tobacco companies in 1995 even though he was specifically told by the judge handling the lawsuit that it was illegal. The lawyers ended up being paid $33.5 million
McGraw's $10 million settlement with Purdue Pharma in 2004 has also been a source of headlines. Out of the settlement, $2 million went to attorneys' fees for trial lawyers hired by McGraw, who also doled out much of the settlement himself instead of turning it over to the Legislature.
Chief Deputy Attorney General Fran Hughes recently told the Legislature that McGraw's office would stop spending the money, though in the next month McGraw handed out more $1 million (earlier Legal Newsline coverage can be found here).
"For several years our state leaders have considered legislation to rein in McGraw's giveaway of state money," said Steve Cohen, president of West Virginia's Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. "He hasn't stopped this questionable practice. It's time for our leaders to stop this abuse of public funds."
Hughes has maintained that organizations like the ATRA, U.S. Chamber of Commerce (owner of the West Virginia Record) and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which included McGraw in its report of the 10 worst state attorneys general, have the same anti-McGraw agenda because he has been successful in his litigation against big businesses.
"We believe the West Virginia Attorney General's office has been targeted by the American Tort Reform Association because General McGraw is one of the most successful Attorneys General in the country at holding members of the American Tort Reform Association accountable for violations of the law," Hughes said. "No good deed goes unpunished.
"Any poll paid for or conducted by ATRA, or one of its other co-conspirators is worthless. You can phrase and ask any question to obtain a specific result. ATRA's goal is the political defeat of General McGraw. It is not ATRA's goal to provide the public with unbiased information about what is good for West Virginia consumers, but instead it wants to advance an agenda that is consistent with its own corporate interest."
Below are the full questions and results from West Virginia:
-Should the Attorney General publicly disclose all contracts with outside lawyers and make those contracts easily available for public inspection on the Internet? (74% yes, 15% no, 11% don't know);
-Should the Attorney General competitively bid contracts for outside lawyers? (59% yes, 27% no, 14% don't know);
-Should the Attorney General allow the Legislature to review contingency fee contracts with outside lawyers before signing them? (69% yes, 23% no, 9% don't know);
-Should the Attorney General require outside lawyers working on a contingency fee basis to release detailed records of the hours they work and what they do? (87% yes, 9% no, 4% don't know);
-Should the Attorney General allow revenue generated from lawsuit settlements to be treated like all other state revenue and be appropriated by the legislature before it can be spent? (75% yes, 16% no, 10% don't know);
-And would you support the creation of a National Code of Ethics to govern contracts for outside lawyers for state Attorneys General across the country? (80% yes, 14% no, 6% don't know)
Joyce said that several state attorneys general are working "hand-in-glove" with their political supporters in private sector law firms, and "nowhere is that more true than in West Virginia."
"With so much of West Virginia's civil enforcement authority being delegated to private sector lawyers with contingency fee incentives to maximize civil damages, it's critical that these relationships be more fully monitored through public disclosure and appropriate oversight," Joyce said.