CHARLESTON, W.V. - Attorney General Darrell McGraw's chief deputy on Thursday called the U.S. Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform's proposed code of conduct for AGs an attempt to stop AGs across the country from enforcing consumer laws.
"What it really means is do not hold any of our members accountable when they violate the law," Fran Hughes said. "This is an attempt to stop attorneys general from enforcing state consumer laws. They want to nationalize consumer protection, and different states have different types of consumer needs.
"The person who is best in the position to know what a particular state needs is an attorney general who is elected by the people of that particular state. Not some national guidelines that are put together by the national Chamber."
An ILR spokesman responded to Hughes' comments.
"Fran needs to take a deep breath," Larry Akey said Thursday afternoon. "The proposed code of conduct that we issued yesterday simply sets forward ideas Attorneys General, including General McGraw, should consider in the operation of their offices. The proposed code of conduct is based on similar codes adhered to by attorneys at all levels of government."
McGraw's office has been a frequent target of criticism by the U.S. Chamber, the ILR and other groups, such as West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, for the way it hires outside counsel and distributes settlement money. LegalNewsLine is owned by the Chamber.
In the ILR proposed code, introduced Wednesday at its eighth annual Legal Reform Summit in Washington, D.C., it says the hiring of outside counsel should be open to public scrutiny, and there should be no contingency-fee agreements in cases involving use of the state's police power.
Hughes dismissed that idea.
"That's just another red herring being pushed by the National Chamber and CALA," she said. "You can lump them together. They're one in the same. This is an attempt to stop state attorneys general from holding their (the U.S. Chamber) members responsible.
"We have developed a legal policy that the state legal officer of the state, elected by the people of West Virginia, where we could enforce the law for the benefit of the consumer with no cost to taxpayers. What the Chamber is wanting would require that tax money from state coffers be used to pay attorneys. We have found a method that is less costly to taxpayers.
"The notion that you're going to pay somebody an hourly fee whether they're successful or not ... what state can afford that? This is another attack on the legal profession. And people are starting to wise up to who is pushing this agenda and what it's about. It's about a lack of accountability."
The ILR proposal also recommends that AG settlements, fines and awards be distributed to the state agency or injured party.
"Sometimes included in the claims are claims made on behalf of the consumers," Hughes said. "There sometimes are certain requirements in the settlement that the reward be shaped for the benefits of consumers.
"Again, this is another attempt by the national Chamber and its out-of-state big corporations to take West Virginia citizens' eyes off of the ball. The national Chamber is really about protecting their members, which are large out-of-state corporations that oftentimes have no vested interest in seeing that the consumers of West Virginia are protected."
Hughes said the U.S. Chamber is trying to create a smokescreen.
"It's part and parcel of their continued attack on attorney generals around the country, and it's an attempt to affect the political process," she said. "If you throw enough mud, they're hoping some of it sticks. How does an officeholder like the attorney general, with no great fundraising ability, go up against an entity that has millions of dollars they can use on a smear campaign and then write it off as a business deduction? It's just a hatchet job."
Akey again responded to those comments.
"Apparently, Ms. Hughes thinks its acceptable to engage in secret no-bid contracts for campaign contributors and to use settlement funds as personal politicial slush funds," Akey said. "What we're saying is that they need to reconsider those activities. Take a look at the code and adopt those policies for your office."
Meanwhile, the executive director of WV CALA praised the ILR's proposal.
"Perhaps West Virginia's governor and Legislature will adopt the code as a model to rein in an ethically-challenged Attorney General Darrell McGraw and his blatant abuse of power," Steve Cohen said Wednesday. "McGraw's questionable hiring practices must be addressed with a Sunshine law. His reckless spending has jeopardized more than $4 million in Medicaid funds for our state's poor and disabled."
Cohen also said McGraw's actions have even more impact.
"Employers are reluctant to create jobs where a state's chief legal officer appears to be acting outside the law," he said.