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Statehouse Beat: Consumers beware

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For all his faults as attorney general, I think everyone would agree that Darrell McGraw oversaw a top-notch Consumer Protection Division -- which is vital in a state that has no Better Business Bureau to speak of, or similar organizations to protect consumers.

Given that Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has spent a good portion of his legal career on the other side of that equation, working for big-city law firms representing giant health care conglomerates -- and given that Big Tobacco and Big Pharma spent millions on McGraw attack ads to benefit Morrisey -- there are legitimate concerns that the new A.G. would scale back consumer protection efforts.

So far, there's been nothing to dissuade those concerns.

Morrisey's planned hiring of retired State Trooper <B>Gordon Ingold<P> as the new Consumer Protection Division director doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

Faithful Gazette readers may recall that Ingold was one of the key players in a Gazette lawsuit a couple of years back to force the State Police to release information about internal investigations of officers accused of abuse or brutality.

Ingold and fellow officers took a "public be damned" attitude toward the release of the investigation reports -- an approach one would hope doesn't carry over to Consumer Protection.

Meanwhile, Morrisey has started handing out pink slips to employees in the attorney general's office who had hoped to stay on through the transition.

Again, it's not very confidence-inspiring to learn that three of Morrisey's first five terminations are in Consumer Protection, including the division's only investigator, Derek Walker.

Also let go from Consumer Protection are Breana Crites and John Street, who served as home mortgage liaison.

Also out are: Paul Sheridan, longtime (and highly honored) deputy attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, and Doren Burrell assistant attorney general for licensing boards.

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Speaking of Morrisey, there's still a huge backlog of state contracts waiting to be awarded, but requiring approval from the attorney general's office.

(As noted last week, under state purchasing law, contracts of $25,000 or more have to be approved as to form by the attorney general's office, to verify the contracts are properly signed and documented, and that all terms or conditions in the contracts comply with state law.)

As it turned out, the only attorney in the attorney general's office with "signature authority" to approve state contracts was Dawn Warfield.

Last week, I said she had left the attorney general's office after the November election to go to work for Auditor Glen Gainer. Actually, she announced she was leaving after the election, but stayed on through Dec. 31 -- which explains why the last contracts approved before the nearly month-long "gap" were dated Dec. 28.

However, the attorney general's office resumed processing contracts last week. Considering that it's not unusual for the Purchasing Division to award 20 or more contracts a week, it's not surprising that after the near month-long gap, that two mail bins full of signed contracts arrived from the A.G.'s office on Friday alone.

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Meanwhile, here's one our new A.G. may wish to take on: General Services Division employees were called into a big meeting Thursday and told to quit tampering with GPS devices being installed on cars and trucks in the state vehicle fleet.

(I vaguely remember writing something this time last year about the Fleet Management Division going to bid for contracts to install the devices, which allow the office to monitor not only mileage and location for the state's fleet of 6,500 cars and trucks, but also travel speeds, usage of vehicles at odd hours, and even whether seatbelts are in use.)

Apparently, there's been some blowback from certain state employees not too keen on management being able to track whether they've used state vehicles for personal travel, unauthorized travel, or have been exceeding the speed limit.

I'm advised there have been enough instances of tampering with the GPS devices to prompt the meeting.

In most cases, that has involved cutting wires, or installing bolts or metal devices to interfere with the GPS signal, but in the case that allegedly precipitated the meeting, a GPS device was entirely removed from a vehicle and presumed stolen.

Administration spokeswoman Diane Holley-Brown said Friday all she was authorized to say is that the situation is under investigation.

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Finally, Marshall this year is "celebrating" its 175th anniversary. With no Rhodes Scholars, no BCS bowl wins (no BCS bowls ... ), and no Final Four appearances, the one thing Marshall grads could flaunt over their big brothers and sisters from the state's flagship institution is that their school is older.

Except that it's not, according to official state documents.

The Legislature passed an act creating the Marshall College State Normal School on Feb. 27, 1867 -- a full 20 days after the Legislature passed the law that established West Virginia University.

(As Casey Stengel would say, you could look it up: It's all in the 1867 edition of Acts of the Legislature.)

Using Marshall logic, WVU could claim to be 199 years old, since one of its predecessors, the Monongalia Academy, was established on the site of Woodburn Circle in 1814. ...

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.

 


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