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True protection for state's consumers

July 9, 2013
Weirton Daily Times

Too often, what politicians really have in mind when they set up "consumer protection" operations is protecting their tenure in office.

Name identification is one of the foundations of successful politics. The more voters see a candidate's name, the more likely they are to cast ballots for him, assuming there is no scandal attached to him. And if they connect the name with "consumer protection," so much the better.

For many years, it worked for former Attorney General Darrell McGraw. He set up "consumer protection advocates" in Charleston and at five branch offices throughout the state. There were 11 advocates, and they went to libraries, senior centers, county fairs and other places where they could warn anyone who would listen about various scams as well as potential pitfalls linked to perfectly legal businesses.

And while the advocates were at it, they handed out trinkets such as key chains and refrigerator magnets - all reminding people that McGraw was watching out for them.

Another aspect of McGraw's operation was participation in "consumer protection" lawsuits. The system was to hire outside attorneys - sometimes lawyers who had contributed to McGraw's re-election campaigns - to handle the suits. When they won, the attorneys raked in fat fees and McGraw's office collected millions of dollars on behalf of West Virginians.

That money should have gone to the state treasury, of course. But McGraw's office kept it, often doling the money out to worthy causes and making him even more popular with voters.

Finally, last fall, voters had had enough of McGraw's self-serving shenanigans. They kicked him out, replacing him with Patrick Morrisey.

Among Morrisey's first steps was to reform the system of hiring outside attorneys and to agree that money collected through lawsuits should go to the state treasury.

Then he tackled the "advocate" system. He may well do away with it.

Some form of consumer protection outreach may be appropriate, but not the way McGraw did it, using state-paid personnel as a virtual public relations firm.

Morrisey is right to be reconsidering how the attorney general protects consumers. A more effective system, with safeguarding West Virginians as its first priority, should be devised.

 
 

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