Speaker of the House Tim Miley is correct to work on improved government accountability in this year's state legislative session. But one of the measures of the House Democrats' plank, as originally proposed, looks designed more to allow plaintiff lawyers to retire early and rich than to improve accountability of government.
House Bill 4001 is evidently modeled after the federal False Claims Act. Judiciary Committee Chairman Tim Manchin, D-Marion, and other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee said the bill would encourage people to report fraud and give them an avenue to benefit financially by wrongdoing they expose.
"If an individual perceives wrongdoing, and cannot get the government to take action, that person would have the ability to initiate legal action," said Delegate Stephen Skinner, a Jefferson County Democrat and — surprise — an attorney. "This is the best 'good government' proposal I have seen since I was elected, and I am excited about it."
It actually sounds like a great opportunity for disgruntled former employees, political opponents and unscrupulous people to harass and embarrass anyone they don't like in government. The state's business community — at least those who are in a business other than law and who are not represented nearly so well in the state legislature, feel differently.
"The true purpose of HB#4001 becomes apparent when examining the differences between it and the federal False Claims Act law," wrote Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber and Chris Hamilton, chairman of the W.Va. Business & Industrial Council, in a joint letter to Speaker Miley.
"Those differences expose HB#4001 for its true purposes — as a windfall for plaintiffs' trial lawyers — legislation that will allow high-priced lawyers to benefit without a demonstrated law enforcement benefit for the state," they wrote.
Fortunately, Speaker Miley appears to be listening to the business community's concerns — at least for now — and moved the proposal to the inactive calendar. That's probably the best place for it, and hopefully that's where it will stay for the rest of the session.
But if this sweet sounding but highly onerous legislation does make it back to the House's active calendar, it needs to correct the many concerns that the West Virginia business community has with it. The state Chamber and the Business & Industry Council listed 15 "critical failures in HB 4001 that immediately became apparent in the short time this legislation has been available for public consideration."
"Given more time," they wrote, "the list likely would be longer."
Fighting fraud is a great idea. Encouraging frivolous lawsuits and adding duplicative laws is not a way to improve the effectiveness of state government.