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WV House passes WV Attorney General Ethics Act

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The West Virginia House of Delegates voted 52-44 Feb. 24 approving a bill that directly relates to the Office of West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

The legislation, House Bill 4490, also known as the Attorney General Ethics Act, would attempt to establish ethical guidelines and provide "financial accountability" to the Office of the West Virginia Attorney General.

The bill would clarify the authority of the attorney general to hire special assistants, would direct the AG to comply with certain requirements when entering into contracts for legal services and would require he or she deposit any amounts received or recovered in providing legal services into the State General Revenue Fund.

Lastly, the bill would require contracts proposed by the attorney general be approved by the Secretary of State's Office.

Beth Ryan, director of communications for the Office of the West Virginia Attorney General, issued the following statement today following the vote approving HB 4490:

"The Office of the Attorney General is deeply disappointed that the West Virginia House of Delegates today passed unconstitutional and highly partisan legislation. This bill targets one person in state government while not imposing similar standards on legislators or other Constitutional offices. House Bill 4490, as it currently stands, will cost the state many millions of dollars, jeopardize existing investigations and lawsuits, and compromises the Attorney General's ability to fight for the Second Amendment and jobs in West Virginia. If this bill passes, it will plunge the state into a constitutional crisis."

Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said he voted against the bill, calling it a "blatantly bipartisan" attack on the attorney general. 

House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said the measure simply was good public policy.

"When you strip away personalities and politics, it comes down to the simple question: Is this good public policy? I truly believe this is," Miley said. "Just as a private attorney can't keep a client's money, the attorney general shouldn't be able to keep taxpayer money recovered by him."

Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, noted that there have been multiple efforts over the years to clarify that point through legislation

"The most successful attempt was 2004, when the House Democratic leadership introduced a bill which passed the House but died in the Senate," he said. "The attorney general at that time was Democrat Darrell McGraw."

HB4490 also would establish a clear protocol for when an attorney general faces a possible conflict of interest.

"As I have said before, this legislation is focused on the attorney general because among the West Virginia constitutional officers, the attorney general is unique," said Miley, who is an attorney. "Being the legal representative of the state of West Virginia, the attorney general is both an executive and judicial officer who must balance constitutional duties with the attorney-client relationship." 

When the Legislature audited the Department of Agriculture, conflicts of interest issues were found within its loan program, prompting corrective legislation, Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, noted. Similarly, reports of the current attorney general facing a conflict of interest with no specific rules to follow prompted this measure.

"He had a conflict of interest that he acknowledged and took steps to address, but there is not a clear procedure for handling such conflicts, such as there are for county prosecutors," Sponaugle said. "We merely want to place in code standard procedure for that type of situation, so there can be no question as to whether the conflict was sufficiently addressed. 

"We want to assure the public that any West Virginia Attorney General's Office will not be clouded by conflicts of interest issues." 

The House also passed HB 4393 creating the Dangerous Wild Animals Act Feb. 24. Both bills were sent to the Senate for debate.