Morrisey on thin ice with consumer protection fund distribution

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey held a news conference with the State Police earlier this month where he announced his office was transferring $1 million to the State Police to hire staff for the crime lab to help clear the case backlog.  It can now take nearly nine months before police get results from lab tests.

The money comes from the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Fund, which consists of settlements won by Morrisey’s office.  The announcement generated a lot of favorable news coverage for Morrisey, who is running for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate.

There is little doubt that the crime lab needs help, so the additional funding comes at an opportune time.  However, the transfer does raise a fundamental question: Does the Attorney General, or any other Constitutional officer for that matter, have the authority to appropriate state funds to another agency?

Morrisey argued Thursday on Talkline that this is not a re-appropriation.  “This is fundamentally different than transferring money to third parties,” he said. “We work every day with the State Police investigations. We represent them.”

Patrick Morrisey

However, the money did not come from any settlement involving the State Police, so this was not a case of the AG’s office turning over settlement funds to an aggrieved party.

Notably, last year Morrisey issued a news release announcing that his office was sending $1 million to the state’s General Fund in hopes it would go toward the crime lab.  He noted in his own release that, “The Attorney General recognizes that his office is not the arbiter [emphasis added] of how these funds are spent.”

Morrisey’s actions renew an ongoing battle he has with the Legislature.  Lawmakers believe, correctly, that they are constitutionally empowered to appropriate state funds.  The power struggle dates back to former Attorney General Darrell McGraw, who tapped into the Consumer Protection Fund for advertisements and trinkets that were geared toward enhancing McGraw’s re-election prospects.

Morrisey made an issue of McGraw’s wasteful spending during his successful campaign against the incumbent, and pledged the office would be more judicious with taxpayer dollars.  To his credit, Morrisey has cleaned out the closets of the political junk and operated a more responsible office.

However, the Attorney General is on thin ice here. Using Morrisey’s rationale of a partnership, just about any elected official could justify redirecting monies. That’s not how our government works, even if the money goes for a seemingly worthwhile cause.

Last session, the Legislature considered HB 3062, the State Settlement and Recovered Funds Accountability Act. The bill specified that any money obtained by the state in legal settlements should be put in a fund and that “the power to appropriate funds for public purposes is solely within the purview of the legislative branch of government.”

The bill allowed for a portion of the funds collected to be held by the AG to operate his consumer protection division.  The bill passed the House, but failed in the Senate.  That’s unfortunate, because codifying how the settlement money is appropriated would put an end to this ongoing debate.


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