West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey won the election last fall in large measure by pledging to clean up operations in the office. Many voters were simply fed up with the shenanigans that occurred - costing taxpayers millions of dollars - under former Attorney General Darrell McGraw.
Once he took office earlier this year, Morrisey moved swiftly and decisively to reform the office. Now, he is proposing changes in how the attorney general hires and handles outside counsel - that is, private attorneys whose expertise may be needed in some matters handled by Morrisey's office.
Under McGraw, a few private attorneys raked in millions of dollars in contingency fees for their work in lawsuits filed by the attorney general. They were chosen by McGraw and, perhaps, a few of his aides. It turned out some of the outside attorneys had been political supporters and sometimes donors to McGraw's campaigns.
Morrisey has proposed a new policy for hiring outside counsel and is seeking public comment on it. His goal is to implement the policy this summer.
At the heart of Morrisey's proposal is a requirement that a competitive bidding process be used to select outside counsel. Also important is a provision that the attorney general must provide written explanations of precisely why outside attorneys are needed to supplement the efforts and expertise of his agency's staff. And finally, the proposed policy sets limits on how much outside attorneys can collect in contingency fees.
It is an excellent plan. But, as you might expect from any policy written by a group of lawyers, it is full of qualifications and limitations. For example, because swift action sometimes is needed in lawsuits, Morrisey's plan envisions a "pre-bidding process" whereby a list of "pre-approved attorneys" can be maintained for use in emergencies.
Still, Morrisey's plan is a good one. It establishes at least some controls on use of outside counsel, and should be adopted.
Transparency will be the key to whether the new plan satisfies taxpayers made cynical by McGraw, however. Morrisey's plan contains much of that ("pre-approved" outside counsel will be listed on the attorney general's website). If additional steps in that regard are suggested during the public comment period, Morrisey should adopt them.