House Democrats to target Morrisey with package on accountability
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Democrats in the West Virginia House of Delegates are targeting Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey as part of a legislative package that they say will help strengthen accountability and integrity in state government.
In a news release Sunday, House Speaker Tim Miley said that he intends to introduce at least five pieces of legislation intended to address public accountability in the government.
One of those would address conflicts of interest in cases handled by the attorney general.
In July, the Gazette first reported that Morrisey's wife has worked as a lobbyist for Cardinal Health, a drug distributor that Morrisey's office is currently suing for allegedly fueling West Virginia's problem with prescription drug abuse.
Both Morrisey and his wife, Denise Henry, have also lobbied for Sanofi, another drug company that Morrisey's office is currently suing.
Both lawsuits were initiated by former Attorney General Darrell McGraw.
"Recently there has been an issue raised about a perceived conflict of interest by the attorney general in a case apparently connected to his wife and her employer," Miley said in the release. "At the present time, there are no rules that specifically apply when an attorney general has a personal conflict with a case that is pending in his office."
Morrisey has said that he stepped aside from the Cardinal Health lawsuit when he took office last January. He has said he stepped aside from the Sanofi case in August, the same day that the Gazette-Mail submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for information about the lawsuit.
Morrisey has said that his chief deputy, Dan Greear, has been managing the cases, although the Gazette-Mail reported in October that Morrisey had met with Cardinal Health executives as late as May 22.
House Democrats on Sunday seemed to say that that was not a suitable solution.
"Very few people would believe that the lawyers in his office would be completely objective when working on a case involving the attorney general's wife," said Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, a lawyer who serves on the Judiciary Committee. "Accordingly, we intend to pass legislation which will remove the appearance of a conflict by requiring assignment of the case to outside counsel over which the conflicted Attorney General has no influence or control."
A Morrisey spokeswoman said that since taking office he has "taken the high road and avoided any perceived conflicts of interest."
"He voluntarily stepped aside from several cases when not required to do so, and handed oversight of the cases to other attorneys within the Office," Beth Ryan, Morrisey's communications director, wrote in an email. "All of the cases were still pursued by the Office and litigated by the same outside counsel firms appointed by the previous attorney general's office. Our office did not seek to dismiss them or even change the law firm handling them. What Democrat leaders of the House fail to realize is that under the case law having a matter completely handled by outside counsel without any oversight by the Attorney General's Office would cause the lawsuit to be dismissed."
Another proposed piece of legislation would ensure that any money that the state receives through lawsuits goes into general revenue, controlled by the Legislature.
Democrats used this as another opportunity to target Morrisey, pointing to a lawsuit against First Premier Bank, initiated by McGraw, that Morrisey settled in June.
Under the terms of the settlement, First Premier paid the state $112,500 and paid additional legal fees to a private law firm that represented the state. The order from Mason Circuit Court gave Morrisey several options for how the money could be used: It could be sent to the Legislature, distributed to taxpayers through Morrisey's office, or used by Morrisey's office for administrative costs.
Delegate Doug Reynolds, vice chairman of the Finance Committee, said that Morrisey controlled the settlement money.
"In recent settlement agreements drafted by the attorney general, he allowed himself discretion as to how the monies recovered were to be spent," Reynolds said in the news release. "We, as members of this legislative body, are the ones held accountable for the appropriation of monies that are recovered for the benefit of the taxpayer."
Ryan did not directly address how the First Premier settlement money was spent but referenced a bill passed last spring that established a new system for managing settlement money.
That bill gave the Attorney General's Office a three-year operating allowance to fund its Consumer Protection Division, and said that any money above that allowance would be returned to the state's General Fund.
Miley also announced that he wants to evaluate a loan program within the troubled Agriculture Department, reform the government's purchasing practices and make it easier for whistleblowers to come forward.
Delegate Tim Armstead, the Republican minority leader, said that government accountability has been on the Republican agenda for years and that he was pleased Democrats were "now willing to work with us on these issues.
"We have had a long line within the Democratic Party of election violations in Southern West Virginia, questions regarding purchasing of routers and now this series of questions relating to the former commissioner of Agriculture," Armstead said. "They need to make this a priority."
Democratic Delegate David Walker, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said in the news release that the legislature needs to consider restructuring or eliminating the Department of Agriculture's Rural Rehabilitation Loan program and other similar programs.
He did not specify why, but a legislative audit announced last week that there were "very troubling activities and management practices" found in the department under former Commissioner Gus Douglass.
A bill on purchasing reform would take unspecified measures to make state purchasing more transparent and to give state government more power to police the bidding and purchasing practices of local governments.
The whistleblower legislation would let people "initiate legal action" if they report perceived wrongdoing but cannot get the government to take action.
Although much of the platform specifically targets Morrisey, Miley said that he believed that both Democrats and Republicans would support the issues.
"While Democrats can point to criminal activity within the Republican Party such as that of Arch Moore while he was governor of West Virginia, Republicans can point to the criminal activities of elected Democrat officials in Mingo County," the release said.
Ryan, Morrisey's spokeswoman, accused Miley of partisanship.
"Our Office has been aggressive in fighting for the interests of West Virginians by filing court cases, briefs and letters opposing steps the EPA has taken to strangle our economy, as well as highlighting the woes and problems created by the Affordable Care Act," she wrote. "House Democrats can no longer walk lockstep with President Obama as the West Virginia economy continues to suffer."
Reach David Gutman at email@example.com or 304-348-5119.