West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey visited Marlinton last Thursday to hold a town hall meeting at the Community Wellness Center. The Attorney General was in the process of completing visits to all of the state’s 55 counties. Pocahontas County was the 54th county he had visited; Greenbrier County was number 55 when the Attorney General visited there on Friday.
During the town hall, Morrisey discussed initiatives his office had undertaken and answered questions from members of the public.
“We’ve been holding town hall meetings across the state because I’ve found it’s a very important tool to learn more about what’s going on in the local communities,” he said. “Plus, I need to make sure that all voices across the state are heard in the state’s capitol.”
Morrisey discussed reforms he has instituted since taking office two years ago.
“We worked at instituting a number of reforms in the Office of Attorney General,” he said. “One of the most important things we did is change how settlement money is handled. In the past, settlement money may come in and sometimes those checks would go out in a manner, I think, did not have true transparency and accountability. Now, every single penny goes back to the state’s general fund, and that’s the way it should be. At the end of the day, the Legislature should control the power of the purse for how monies are disbursed, not the Attorney General’s Office. Since we instituted that policy, we returned sixteen-and-a-half million dollars, voluntarily, back to the state.”
“The other major initiative that we focused on was how outside counsel is hired,” said Morrisey. “I thought it was critical to have a much more transparent system, where people could submit bids to get legal work. We wanted to put an end to the ‘friends and family’ plan and let the public go on the website and scrutinize all of the law firms that were applying for these bids. You get to see all of their qualifications and look at the decisions we make when we choose a law firm. Since that’s taken effect, we’ve saved about four million dollars, just by paying lawyers a little bit less.”
The Attorney General’s Office pays particular attention to new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations.
“We read every line of every paragraph of every page of every regulation that comes out from the EPA, if we think that it may violate the rule of law or have a negative effect on West Virginia jobs,” he said. “We have some of the best lawyers in our office working on that.”
The Attorney General fielded several questions from members of the public.
Roger Trusler asked about the requirement to pay contractors prevailing wages for projects in Pocahontas County. Trusler said the requirement had greatly driven up the construction cost of the Community Wellness Center
“Obviously, West Virginia has state prevailing wage laws,” replied Morrisey. “The federal laws are outside of my jurisdiction, unless we think the federal law is running in conflict with state issues. To change that would require an act of the State Legislature. Obviously, there’s a new Legislature that’s coming in in January that may look at a lot of these types of issues.”
Morrisey responded to a question about new EPA rules regulating power plant emissions.
“The purpose of some of these rules is to reduce the use of coal, generally, and the EPA stated, even if this rule goes into effect, it would have a net impact of 0.7 percent in terms of emission reduction,” he said. “When you factor in the number of coal-fired power plants that are being built in China, in Germany and India, the net effect of this proposal is going to be almost zero. Yet, the cost to West Virginia and to our country could be astronomical.”
The Attorney General said his office closely scrutinizes new EPA rules for legal violations, in which case they can be challenged in court. In addition to the emissions rule, Morrisey plans to review a forthcoming EPA rule which will define “waters of the United States” for regulatory purposes.
“Undoubtedly, those are some of the potential issues that are going to come up in the context of a potential lawsuit against the EPA,” he said.
Marlinton Mayor Joe Smith asked Morrisey about possible relief for homeowners affected by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) floodplain map changes. FEMA floodplain mapping problems have been reported in several areas across the country. In the Marlinton and Cass areas, the new maps defy logic by including areas that have never flooded and excluding areas that are commonly flooded.
Morrisey responded that his authority with regard to federal agencies is limited.
“Our office typically doesn’t have a role with FEMA unless we think that they are violating the law, not just making innocent mistakes,” responded Morrisey. “The door’s open to different ideas if we think that the federal agency is misinterpreting the law. If they’re making mistakes along the way, it’s hard because I’m the state Attorney General and it’s difficult for me to come in all the time and police all the federal agencies. We try to go in when we see there are clear violations of the law, where a court could set something aside.”
Nevertheless, Morrisey asked the mayor to forward information on floodplain map discrepancies to his office.
“What we try to do, if we can’t address it through our jurisdiction, we try to refer you to people who might,” he said.
The Pocahontas Times asked Morrisey if his office and the State Ethics Commission have sufficient authority to fight corruption in the state government.
“In the upcoming legislative session, there are potential opportunities to give our office a little bit more teeth to go after corruption, maybe to strengthen the Ethics Commission’s authority,” responded Morrisey. “I think that makes sense. The people deserve to have confidence in their government and know that we’re going to pursue allegations of wrongdoing.”
“I think we could strengthen some of the laws in our state that go after corruption,” he added. “I think that’s something we should be looking at. I’m not the Legislature, but I’m not afraid to make some recommendations to do things that I think serve the people.”
Curtis Curry asked Morrisey if his office could do more to educate seniors about scammers.
“We have someone who comes to Pocahontas County periodically and does mobile office hours,” replied Morrisey. “There have been budget cuts in some of the other areas, but I can tell you that we have been very proactive because we think it’s important. The reality is that these scammers prey on the elderly and some other people with lesser ability to fight back. We’ve taken that very seriously. In our office, we dramatically increased the number of proactive work to try to fight against these scams. Maybe we just have to figure out a way to get more of that information to you.”
“We’re open to new ways to communicate. Part of the reason that I’m here tonight – how do we expand communication back from our office to Pocahontas County to help you. Because you’re right, scammers are working overtime to figure out ways to take your money.”
Morrisey invited everyone to contact his office in Charleston with recommendations and questions. The Attorney General’s phone number is 304-558-2021. To see a video of Morrisey’s town hall meeting in its entirety, see The Pocahontas Times website.