Morrisey's letters followed a lawsuit filed by a Charleston woman who alleges that medical staff at a West Side clinic botched her abortion. The Family Policy Council, an evangelical Christian group, is representing the woman and held a news conference to announce the lawsuit two weeks ago.
"A woman has made deeply troubling allegations about an abortion performed in this state against her will," Morrisey said Tuesday. "No state agency or regulations currently govern abortion clinics as a whole, and unlike in many other states, it appears that a purely elective abortion could legally be performed at any point in a pregnancy."
Under state law, the Ethics Commission must find "clear and convincing evidence that a complaint was made in bad faith" to award attorneys' fees to a public official who's the subject of an ethics complaint.
The public employee must prove that the person who filed the complaint did so "knowing that the allegations are untrue or in reckless disregard for the truth."
In addition to awarding legal fees, the Ethics Commission can order someone who files a frivolous complaint to pay the agency's investigative costs and bar the person from filing additional complaints.
However, Ethics Commission staff members said the agency has never imposed those sanctions against an individual. Instead, the agency typically dismisses complaints that allege misconduct and wrongdoing not covered by the Ethics Act. The agency receives more than 100 complaints a year.
"Quite a lot of those were dismissed," Parker said.
Morrisey's comments last week did not specify which lawyers would defend the attorney general if he were to face an ethics complaint.
The Ethics Commission advises public officials to hire outside lawyers. The agency says the West Virginia Bar's Rules of Professional Conduct restrict "attorneys representing clients with conflicting interests."
In 2008, Dunbar Mayor Roger Wolfe tried to use the city attorney to defend himself against an ethics complaint. The city attorney was disqualified from the case.
"It's been our position if a public official becomes a respondent in an ethics complaint, the attorney for that respondent's public entity is disqualified from representing the respondent," Parker said.
To get around those rules, public officials sometimes hire outside lawyers, and reimburse those attorneys with local or state funds.
Reach Eric Eyre at erice...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.