Attorney general outlines changes to office after new laws take effect
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A bill passed during last week's special legislative session addresses a longstanding controversy over accountability for money gleaned from civil lawsuits filed by the Attorney General's Office.
However, the measure would let recently elected Attorney General Patrick Morrisey retain a balance of roughly $12 million in the Consumer Protection Fund, where the settlement money has been held. It currently stands at about $20 million.
The bill would let him use another $1.86 million for office management upgrades he says are badly needed.
For years, lawmakers and political challengers sparred with former Attorney General Darrell McGraw over his use of money derived from settlements. Opponents said the Legislature should decide how the money is spent.
McGraw would counter that settlement agreements signed by judges dictated the spending. He would sometimes disburse grants to local governments and entities around the state. He also spent settlement money on advertising and other efforts he deemed public education.
For example, during one seven-month span in 2003 and 2004 - an election year - McGraw spent $688,540 from the fund on advertising and promotion. The office had spent $117,823 on advertising in the previous nine years combined.
The spots, ostensibly aimed at consumer protection, always included McGraw's name.
Morrisey criticized McGraw for such practices during last year's campaign. Since taking office, he also has complained about the office's lack of management oversight and appropriate technology.
Of about 100 attorneys working for the attorney general, some were reporting how much they had worked in a week but most were not, he said.
The computer system didn't allow two people in the same office to work together on a document, let alone collaborate with employees in different office locations.
Morrisey said in an interview that all of that is going to change, thanks in large part to the bill approved by the Legislature last week.
If signed into law by the governor, the measure would remove $7.46 million from the Consumer Protection Fund and send most of the money to other state entities.
Morrisey said enough would be left in the fund for about three years' worth of consumer protection work.
Any money that comes in above that threshold and not already pledged to the office's clients - generally state agencies - would go to the state's general revenue fund.
"If monies are being spent by a constitutional officer, they should be appropriated by the Legislature," Morrisey said.
A sea change
He called the bill a "landmark" move. Legislative leaders agreed.
There was always a question about the attorney general's use of money in that fund, said Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion.
He and House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, both said the changes were a step in the right direction.
"As long as he has enough money to fund the consumer protection part of his office, then any additional money should go back to general revenue to be appropriated by the Legislature," Prezioso said.
"I think that's the problem that the former attorney general had. He appropriated the money as he saw fit a lot of the time," he continued.
Democrat McGraw served as attorney general for two decades before Republican Morrisey defeated him in last November's general election.
The bill affecting the Consumer Protection Fund was close to passage in the regular 60-day session, but rumors of a change that would have removed even more money from the fund bogged it down.
White said even without the bill, the Legislature could have swept the fund whenever it deemed necessary, although it has not done so.
White said lawmakers, Morrisey and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin wanted to reach a compromise on how much money to take from the account.
After the disbursements called for in the bill are made, the fund will hold about $12 million.
White thinks the money being distributed elsewhere is going to the right places.
"It helps a lot of other people. The rest of the supplemental helps a lot of people out there that are in need of the money," he said.
The state's behavioral health program is to receive $3 million, the pharmacy schools at West Virginia University and Marshall University are to receive $500,000 each, and West Virginia State University is to get $250,000.
When the Attorney General's Office wins or settles a lawsuit, the money goes into the Consumer Protection Fund.
While some of that money has gone to entities for whom the cases were filed, there was no real rhyme or reason for other spending during McGraw's tenure, Prezioso said.
Morrisey said no one in the office kept track of the money.
"There's a great need. The account needs to be managed," he said. "The books were not being kept in any meaningful way for this fund."
The bill awaiting Tomblin's signature calls for about $1.86 million of the $7.46 million to be removed from the fund to actually be returned to the Attorney General's Office.
Some of the money will be spent on technology upgrades, including a new phone system, but about $425,000 is slated for wages and benefits for seven staff members to manage the Consumer Protection Fund.
That sum will pay wages and benefits for one year, but the office plans to continue to fund the positions, said Morrisey spokeswoman Beth Ryan.
The money will pay for an assistant controller and an accounts receivable employee to keep the books for the fund. They will help segregate money intended for restitution and money used to operate the office. Morrisey said that wasn't done before.
Morrisey said he also needs two employees to scan thousands of documents. He wants to digitize office records because he thinks the current paper-based system doesn't work well.
The money also will pay for two information technology staffers and a legal secretary, Ryan said.
Most of the remaining money will be used for technology purchases, including phones and computer systems.
Morrisey plans to purchase a system to track his employees' efforts. Attorneys in both the public and private spheres are expected to bill their clients for the work that is done, he said.
Some state agencies are billed for specific costs while others pay hourly rates.
The Legislature also appropriates money specifically for work on appellate matters. The Attorney General's Office handles any case involving the state that goes before the state Supreme Court.
A big operation
The office employs between 190 and 200 people, and about half are attorneys, Ryan said. She said about 47 work in the main office, and more than 50 people work in the Quarrier Street location.
There are 32 people dedicated to consumer protection at that site and four more based in Martinsburg. There are also 26 people devoted to workers' compensation, 11 working on appellate matters and four in the civil rights division.
Ryan said the office has employees at 15 Department of Motor Vehicles locations and embedded with more than a dozen other state entities, including West Virginia University.
Upon his arrival, Morrisey said he found no way to keep track of who got billed for what. Employees didn't turn in their billable hours either.
"Different people billed a wide range of hours. But only a limited number of lawyers actually kept their billable time . . . or submitted it into the system," he said.
He didn't name names. He was very hesitant to talk about employees at all.
The office is trying to move away from a 9-to-5 mindset. There will be personnel reviews and employee feedback, something Morrisey said is crucial to improving the office.
"With some of the advantages, with new technology, if we can track individual lawyers' productivity, we think that we may be able to get more work out of individual lawyers and just have the ability to manage their work product better," he said.
Office administrators also want to purchase software and hardware to upgrade the internal computer system. The upgrade would allow attorneys to better track cases, collaborate on research and increase protection of confidential information, Morrisey said.
The office is planning to request bids for all of the equipment, he said.
McGraw could not be reached for comment.