Transparency is mandatory

Whenever the government becomes involved in multimillion-dollar lawsuits, some taxpayers begin to wonder whether their slice of the pie is appropriate. Here in West Virginia, they have good reason for concern.

For many years, former state Attorney General Darrell McGraw was in the habit of hiring outside counsel to handle “consumer protection” lawsuits. He picked the attorneys, who sometimes had contributed money to his campaigns. Some of them reaped enormous fees.

Then, to add insult to injury, McGraw often retained lawsuit settlement proceeds in his own office, rather than transferring the money to the state treasury.

Patrick Morrisey, who became attorney general earlier this year, already has made it clear that when the state receives money from lawsuit settlements, the bulk of it will go into the state’s general fund.

This week, Morrisey finalized his policy on hiring outside counsel. That came after a 45-day period during which the public was able to comment on his proposal.

Morrisey’s plan should correct some of the abuses of the past. When he believes the attorney general needs to hire private lawyers, he will explain his decision in writing. And outside counsel will be retained through a competitive bidding process, rather than McGraw’s practice of selecting favorites.

In addition, Morrisey has pledged outside-counsel contracts will be handled on a cost-effective basis. In other words, they will be used only when the potential benefit outweighs the cost to taxpayers.

All of that is an enormous improvement. Again, however, the very nature of this particular beast invites skepticism. When millions, or even tens of millions, of dollars are up for grabs, there is no such thing as too much transparency.

Morrisey’s plan to issue written justifications in cases where outside lawyers are hired gives him an opportunity to provide taxpayers with information they will want, such as whether winners of the competitive bidding process have contributed to his political campaigns and how much they stand to collect if lawsuits are successful.

Some lawyers seeking work with the attorney general’s office may not favor release of such information to the public. That’s too bad. If they want the opportunity to be involved in get-rich-quick lawsuits, it is a price they should have to pay.