House moves to limit Attorney General’s use of settlement funds

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The House of Delegates passed a bill that would rein in the state Attorney General’s use of lawsuit settlement funds.

The bill would require funds won in cases by the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office to be deposited to the state’s General Revenue Fund.

Matthew Rohrbach

“Whatever money is recovered on behalf of the taxpayers of the state should come to this body for expenditure for the citizens of this state,” said Delegate Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, the sponsor of the bill.

“It shouldn’t be used by any attorney general for political purposes or self-aggrandizement.”

The bill passed 90-7 on Tuesday. Delegates Jim Butler, Eric Householder, Pat McGeehan, Tony Paynter, Jill Upson, Guy Ward and Marshall Wilson were those who voted against it.

Marshall Wilson

Wilson, R-Berkeley, said he was concerned about hampering the Attorney General’s ability to handle cases.

“I will be voting against the bill because I am concerned we will be preventing the Attorney General’s office from working effectively,” Wilson said.

It now goes to the state Senate. The bill passed the House 95-5 last year but stalled out in the Senate Finance Committee as the regular session was coming to an end.

The issue heated up again this fall after Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced his office was transferring $1 million to the State Police to hire staff for the crime lab to help clear a case backlog. Questions arose about whether the Attorney General has the authority to appropriate state funds to another agency.

As Morrisey took on then-incumbent Attorney General Darrell McGraw in 2012, he often criticized McGraw’s allocation of settlement money.

“Instead of sending all of the settlement money to the Legislature and the taxpayers, McGraw doles it out as he see fit, like a King, to promote himself,” Morrisey said in an advertisement that year.

The bill that passed the House on Tuesday directs that recovered funds and assets to be deposited into the state’s General Revenue Fund or held in trust to do so.

It prohibits agreements to settlement or agreement terms that are contrary to that.

And it requires a quarterly transfer of funds from the Consumer Protection Recovery Fund into the General Revenue Fund. It also requires quarterly reporting by the Attorney General about the status of the funds designated to be turned over.

An amendment passed by the House on Monday reduced the amount of settlement money the Attorney General may keep in the Consumer Protection Recovery Fund from $6 million to $5 million.

Morrisey’s office has questioned the wisdom of the bill.

“We are deeply concerned that the way the bill is drafted is unconstitutional and would severely limit the Attorney General’s authority to protect the public,” the Attorney General’s office said in a statement attributed to Anthony Martin, chief deputy attorney general, as the bill passed through House Judiciary.

Morrisey’s office says that as drafted the legislation would have discouraged a $160 million settlement with Frontier that required the company to establish higher speed Internet meeting promises to consumers.

The office also expressed concern that the proposal would suppress state agencies’ motivations to file suits to recover damages when they are harmed if those wouldn’t receive money from their efforts.

“The Legislature should control the power of the purse, but such power can not be exercised in a manner that impedes the Attorney General’s or the Executive Branch’s constitutional functions,” Martin stated in remarks distributed by Morrisey’s office.

“We are hopeful that the House will alter its approach as delegates learn about the legal and policy flaws of this bill.”

 





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