CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Twenty years ago, Darrell V. McGraw took office as West Virginia's attorney general. His presence in the office was something of a surprise; McGraw only got in the race because another candidate bowed out at the last minute and, despite many politicians' wishes for someone -- anyone -- besides McGraw.
As his two decades as attorney general come to a close, McGraw has participated in lawsuits and settlements that have brought more than $2 billion to the state. The vast majority of that came from a historic multi-state lawsuit against tobacco companies.
"We were able to enforce the law ... and received money, for the people and for the state, that was lost because of violations of the law," McGraw said last week.
"The government makes the laws, but does not provide for the enforcement of those laws. If laws are not enforced, they have no effect."
Pat McGinley, a law professor at West Virginia University, said, "Darrell McGraw has been an unrelenting advocate of the rights of coal miners, working people and the middle class for more than three decades.
"He was opposed by entrenched special interests throughout his career and yet managed to be elected five times to serve in several of the most important offices of state government.
After fighting off close challenges in his last couple of re-election campaigns, McGraw was on the losing side of one of those battles. Patrick Morrisey, a former lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and congressional candidate in New Jersey, got 51 percent of the vote in November's election. Morrisey will be West Virginia's first Republican attorney general since 1933.
In his private law practice, Morrisey represented pharmaceutical and tobacco companies -- the two biggest sources of funds from suits and settlements won by McGraw.
During the campaign, McGraw said, supporters of his opponent outspent him by about six to one, including $1.6 million of independent expenditure to finance "attack ads" on television.
"The national and state chambers of commerce and their allies wanted to stop the actions of this office as an example for the nation," McGraw said.
McGraw, who served 12 years as a state Supreme Court justice, was first elected attorney general in 1992. He had already announced he was going to run for a circuit judgeship that year. But once the sitting attorney general, Mario Palumbo, decided at the last minute to challenge incumbent Gov. Gaston Caperton, it left the attorney general field wide open.
McGraw won the Democratic primary against a challenger who said he was urged to run by state Democratic leaders as an alternative to McGraw.
"I've been considered a Statehouse outsider even when I was on the inside of the Statehouse," McGraw said at the time.
When looking at the money the attorney general's office brought to the state under McGraw, four lawsuits stand out:
• Twenty-three tobacco companies agreed to an historic $1.7 billion judgment in 1998, payable over 20 years, in addition to another $200 million from another legal action.
The use of tobacco sickened and killed thousands of West Virginians, resulting in huge state medical expenses, the verdict stated. Through its Medicaid and public employee insurance programs, West Virginia was paying more than $100 million a year to treat smoking-related illnesses.
West Virginia was the third state to sue the tobacco industry. Caperton opposed the lawsuit, which eventually included more than 40 other states. Former Kanawha Circuit Judge Irene Berger dismissed McGraw's initial filing.
Rather than waiting more years for the remainder of installment payments, the state decided in 2007 to take in an immediate $900 million, to be paid off by incoming tobacco money. That helped fill the bankrupt Teachers' Retirement Fund and helped other state programs as well.
• Fifteen coal companies paid the state $56.6 million in debts run up by independent contractors they hired to operate their smaller mines. Dozens of those contractors failed to pay workers' compensation premiums and other state taxes.
• Eli Lilly paid a $15.8 million settlement after marketing a schizophrenia drug in West Virginia for medical conditions other than those approved by government regulators.
• Purdue Pharma paid $10 million for encouraging West Virginians to buy the addictive prescription drug OxyContin. The state received another $24 million from a nationwide OxyContin penalty in a suit involving several states.
During his 20 years as attorney general, McGraw's Consumer Protection Division also won tens of millions of dollars from legal complaints and lawsuits filed against a wide variety of companies that scammed consumers.
McGraw's Consumer Protection Division received several national awards from groups like the National Consumer Products Safety Commission.
"As we enforced the law," McGraw said, "we were able to have a substantial impact on the state budget. For five or six years after 2000, we were a major element in balancing the state budget, by enforcing laws against very large out-of-state corporate interests that had a history of violating our laws.
"Today, the people and taxpayers of West Virginia still benefit from the work of the attorney general's office, from payments going to the old-time Workers' Compensation Fund, to PEIA [Public Employees Insurance Agency] and to the Teachers' Retirement System."
McGraw's staff also initiated legal actions against payday lenders who charged huge interest rates to consumers desperate for cash. Many actions targeted pawnshops and pyramid schemers.
Lawsuits and legal complaints also were filed against businesses defrauding consumers through dishonest sales of cemetery lots, pre-need funerals, automobile warrantees, water-treatment services, satellite dishes, aluminum siding and mortgage loans.
Proceeds from those lawsuits and legal actions both refunded consumers who lost money and helped finance a variety of state programs, such as low-cost health insurance for children and "day-report centers" allowing nonviolent offenders stay out of jail.
Many of those settlements did not result in major amounts of money, but still helped consumers.
In May 2011, for example, West Virginia consumers won nearly $34,000 in refunds from settlements McGraw reached with two "debt relief" companies -- Allied Corporate Connection and Premier Debt Solutions.
McGraw's action was sparked by consumer complaints that those two companies charged them advance fees to get reductions in their credit card debts. The companies never provided any debt relief that was promised.
Last November, McGraw reminded private consumers and businesses they could get refunds from a settlement involving price fixing, between 1999 and 2006, in sales of liquid crystal display screens for televisions and computer monitors.
Consumers could be eligible for refunds ranging from $25 to more than $200. Business outlets that made major purchases of LCD screens could get thousands of dollars from the $1.1 billion settlement reached with 10 manufacturers sued by agencies in 23 states.
"It has been a real privilege to represent the people of West Virginia. With the opportunities we had to enforce our laws, we have made life better for many people," McGraw said.
"I am particularly grateful for the good staff we had at the attorney general's office."
In the days after his election victory, Morrisey said there had been some "good work" done by McGraw's office in consumer protection.
But Morrisey said one of his main goals is to create a "stable business environment" in the state. At a news conference last week announcing several hirings and the creation of a "public integrity" division, the consumer protection division was not mentioned.
Rob Berthold, a Charleston lawyer, said, "As attorney general Darrell McGraw has done many wonderful things for consumers in the state of West Virginia during his time in office.
"One of his best attributes was that he wanted the citizens of West Virginia to benefit at the highest level in any settlements that were negotiated on behalf of the attorney general. I hate to see this pro-consumer movement end."
McGraw and his wife, Jorea Marple -- who was abruptly fired as state superintendent of schools the week after McGraw's election loss -- have not finalized their plans. But their long-time home on California Avenue opposite the state Capitol has for-sale signs on the property.
"I am looking at opportunities," McGraw said on Saturday. "But I have not made any decision with respect to what I will be doing over the next few years. But I look forward to doing something productive, consistent with my past interests.
"Except for stints in the Army and other short stints, I have spent all my life in West Virginia. We haven't been able to settle on what the future holds. Change brings new opportunities."
Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjny...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.