Ideologies clash over role of attorney general's office
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The two candidates for state attorney general are emphasizing decidedly different roles for the office.
Incumbent Democrat Attorney General Darrell McGraw wants to continue his pursuit of "evildoers" and "rascals" who violate state laws and hurt consumers.
McGraw said his office has collected more than $2 billion from consumer protection lawsuits since he took office after the 1992 election.
Republican challenger Patrick Morrisey wants to do more to sue the federal government and provide policy advice to state agencies.
In particular, Morrisey said McGraw hasn't done enough to challenge President Barack Obama and federal laws and regulations, like environmental regulations aimed at the coal industry.
The two clashed extensively for the first time Wednesday during a meeting with the Daily Mail editorial board. They frequently talked over each other or made asides as the other spoke.
While McGraw's reputation and his office's bread and butter come from multimillion-dollar lawsuits against companies, he said the office spends much of its time prosecuting criminal appeals and representing 250 state agencies.
Morrisey, a former congressional staffer who lives in the Eastern Panhandle, wants to act as general counsel to other branches of government to make sure "competent decisions" are being made.
McGraw said Morrisey was a front man for business interests that want to thwart McGraw's consumer protection efforts.
"If doing business successfully in West Virginia is impaired by protecting the old people and the young people and the vulnerable from predators, then go do business somewhere else," McGraw said.
Morrisey said he still intended to enforce consumer protection laws but made clear he would take a different tack.
"Let's be clear, no one is talking about having a weak consumer protection statute; I intend to vigorously enforce the consumer protection laws, so this is all misnomer," Morrisey said.
But asked if he would bring the same kinds of lawsuits McGraw's office does, Morrisey said he would plan to "educate companies on the importance of these laws" and have "educational summits" for individuals, small businesses and corporations.
"You try to provide compliance assistance to them," Morrisey said.
He said he wanted to change the culture of the office so there is "better predictability, better stability" so businesses know there is a "component office" that is reaching out and working "collaboratively" with them. But, Morrisey said, if someone crosses a line, they would pay the price.
"The fact is, if someone is violating the law and there is no question about that, you pursue immediate action," Morrisey said.
Morrisey has also challenged McGraw over how the attorney general picks outside law firms to represent the state.
First, Morrisey said the office needs to rely less on outside lawyers.
Second, he said the office needs to have an open bidding process to hire outside attorneys general.
The outside attorneys can sometimes get lucrative cuts of state settlements. McGraw's office has faced criticism for allowing contributors or acquaintances to get contracts.
"I know who the good lawyers are and who the lawyers are who are specialists in whatever area," McGraw said.
McGraw also argues these outside firms and their attorneys bear the risk of fighting tough and sometimes lengthy battles against well-heeled interests. If the outside attorneys lose, they don't get anything and the state loses nothing. If they win, they get something and so does the state.
McGraw said he wasn't sure how he could get the same results he has gotten over the years by doing it another way.
"If you were involved in some litigation, let's just say, a divorce action," McGraw said, setting up an example of how a different process might work. "So, what you'd want to do is run an ad in the newspaper in which you say, 'I mean to sue my spouse for divorce and what I want to find is the cheapest lawyer to do that, bidding is open and all bids will be considered, and by that way, I shall select who will represent me in the divorce'?
"Some people may want to do that; I wouldn't recommend it."
Morrisey said there were ways to open up the hiring process to make it more transparent.
For instance, he said there could be lists of lawyers who routinely do work for the state based on specific criteria.
Morrisey also said he might end up being limited in how much legal action he could take against the federal government without a like-minded governor or agency as his client.
"There are certain independent authorities that the office of attorney general has," Morrisey said. "But, at the same time, as a practical matter, you don't want an office of attorney general running out there on their own without having the political, policy and legal support from the governor and the agencies - this has to be a collaborative effort."
Still, he said he would do more to fight the Obama administration - which, of course, may not be in power next year - than McGraw has done.
"It's my belief that Darrell McGraw's endorsement and support of President Obama has compromised his vision of the office because we needed someone more willing to challenge these federal regulations, and Darrell McGraw hasn't been willing to do that," Morrisey said.
One of McGraw's special assistant attorneys general filed a lawsuit on behalf of former Gov. Joe Manchin against the Environmental Protection Agency, but Republicans say there are more legal actions McGraw or current Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin should be taking.
The pair also sparred over the transparency of the office.
It's currently hard to track how much outside attorneys are paid when they take their cut of a lawsuit the state settles or wins.
McGraw said the information is public in court records. But those records could be in any of a number of courthouses across the state and are not centrally housed by McGraw for public consumption.
Morrisey said he would do more to let the public view how much money outside attorneys are receiving.
Morrisey also said he wanted all settlement money to be given to the Legislature.
McGraw said 99.9 or 99.7 percent of all the settlement money already does go back to the Legislature.