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Closing arguments: West Virginia attorney general candidates call on voters to decide

OPPONENTS — Democratic candidate for attorney general Sam Brown Petsonk, left, and Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey bump elbows shortly after Petsonk’s victory in the June 9 Democratic primary. (File photo)

CHARLESTON — Both Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Democratic challenger Sam Brown Petsonk are used to making their cases to juries, but both candidates will need to ask West Virginians for their vote on Nov. 3.

Morrisey has been able to win at the ballot box, defeating five-term Democrat and former state Supreme Court justice Darrell McGraw in 2012 and holding off a challenge in 2016 from former Cabell County lawmaker Doug Reynolds. Petsonk has worked for the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd and has used his legal career to fight for the rights of workers.

Much like a jury in a courtroom, these two lawyers will need to persuade a majority of the state’s voters that they are the right person to represent the legal interests of West Virginia.

THE STATE’S LAWYER

Like many people who live in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, Morrisey is not from around here. Opponents have frequently pointed out that Morrisey is a native of New York and New Jersey.

After starting his own legal practice, Morrisey went to Capitol Hill, working on the Committee on Energy and Commerce for the U.S. House of Representatives from 1999 to 2004 as a chief counsel on matter regarding healthcare. Until his election in 2012, Morrisey worked as a lobbyist, focused on the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry.

During this time, Morrisey moved to Harpers Ferry. He defeated McGraw in 2012 by more than 16,000 votes, leading 51 percent to 49 percent.

Morrisey’s victory over Reynolds in 2016 was more decisive, winning by 10 percentage points — 52 percent to 42 percent.

Morrisey has considered only running for two terms, but with the COVID-19 situation creating new ways for West Virginia’s consumers to get ripped off, as well as a number of lawsuits against pharmacies and on behalf of natural gas pipeline projects, Morrisey said it was important for him to continue the work he started.

“In this post-COVID world that we will soon be in, it’s so critical that we have an experienced person with a deep record of accomplishment in the Attorney General’s Office,” Morrisey said. “We are excited to continue that work because in the post-COVID world, we’re going to need people who have the skillset to protect our jobs and to succeed in this post-COVID world.”

Morrisey points to his work bringing about settlements with pharmaceutical companies that contributed to the state’s opioid epidemic, bringing about more than $110 million in settlements. This includes a $37 million settlement with McKesson Corp. over supplying thousands of hydrocodone pills to residents in Southern West Virginia. Morrisey has also gone after the federal Drug Enforcement Agency for its role in allowing the opioid crisis to grow. Recent cases include lawsuits against Walgreens, Rite-Aid, CVS, and Walmart over opioid distribution.

“We formed the state’s first substance abuse fighting unit, and we’ve gone after the root causes of the epidemic,” Morrisey said. “We’ve received record-breaking settlements in West Virginia, not only against the drug companies, but we’ve been very diligent in enforcing our consumer protection laws.”

Waste, fraud, and abuse have also been targets for Morrisey with nearly $410 million discovered through the office’s Consumer Protection Division and various fraud detection units. This money was returned through payments to the state, restitution, in-kind compensation, recovered funds and projected savings for the state and federal government.

Morrisey also points to the number of cases his office has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the state. He supports the appointment of federal Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the seat vacated after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Morrisey’s office helped overturn the Waters of the United States rule and fought against greenhouse gas regulations that would have negatively impacted the coal industry. He successfully argued on behalf of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project. Morrisey said these job-protecting efforts will continue.

Next month, Morrisey will be one of 18 state attorneys general — 20 states in total — arguing that the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional at the U.S. Supreme Court. Opponents fear a ruling from the court could scrap the entire law, leaving thousands of West Virginians without health insurance and possibly raising premiums for people with pre-existing medical conditions. Morrisey said he doesn’t want to see the ACA thrown out and believes a ruling by the court will likely require only the unconstitutional parts of the law to be removed.

“I’ve always said that I support protecting people with pre-existing conditions, and we’ve worked not only in the litigation but across the board to try to make sure that happens,” Morrisey said. “It’s a myth to suggest that people with pre-existing conditions are going to lose coverage. That’s just a political attack and it’s never had any merit. We’re going to keep working to ensure that individuals with pre-existing conditions are protected.”

In a third term, Morrisey said he wants to focus more on ways his office can make it easier for broadband expansion to occur in the state. Morrisey points to a $160 million settlement in 2015 with Frontier Communications over its advertised internet speeds. The Attorney General’s Office was involved with the recent executive order from Gov. Jim Justice removing caps from a broadband loan program. Morrisey sees other ways his office can help smooth a path for broadband expansion.

“We know that the post-COVID economy poses challenges and we’ve been pushing and doing double work trying our best to identify new resources for broadband infrastructure,” Morrisey said. “You have to build up that infrastructure. We’ve done as much or more than any state out of the (Attorney General’s) Office through the settlement work, and then just the proactive efforts to try and identify and find buckets for broadband and we’re going to continue to do that.”

FOR THE PEOPLE

Petsonk is a 35-year-old employment law attorney from Fayette County. He first filed to run 15 months ago, winning a tight Democratic primary contest with Pendleton County lawmaker Isaac Sponaugle. That election was decided by just 168 votes with Petsonk winning 50.05 percent to 49.94 percent.

Much of Petsonk’s legal career has been spent advocating on behalf of coal miners for black lung benefits, small cities and communities fighting for clean water protections from polluters and working to bring attention to drug addiction and recovery options.

Petsonk is most disturbed by Morrisey’s lawsuit regarding the Affordable Care Act. According to 2018 numbers from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 44 percent of West Virginians have private insurance, 26 percent have Medicaid and 19 percent have Medicare. According to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, more than 800,000 West Virginians — or 52 percent of non-elderly state residents — have pre-existing conditions.

Petsonk believes the repeal of the ACA could cost the state $1 billion in federal funding for the state’s Medicaid expansion, raise premiums on people with pre-existing conditions, and do considerable harm to drug addiction recovery programs — all things that touch most West Virginians’ lives. Petsonk said the last thing West Virginians need during the COVID-19 pandemic is to lose health insurance coverage.

“We have hundreds of thousands of people in West Virginia who will lose their healthcare,” Petsonk said. “If Patrick Morrisey succeeds in what he’s asking for in his lawsuit to repeal our federal healthcare programs, we cannot afford for that to happen. Our hospitals, our doctors, our patients, our economy cannot withstand the damage that Morrisey is asking our courts to do to West Virginia. That’s the main reason I’m in this race.”

The amount the state has settled for in opioid lawsuits is far too low, Petsonk said. He points to Morrisey’s background as a pharmaceutical lobbyist as a conflict of interest, and West Virginia’s low settlement amounts compared to other state lawsuits against opioid distributors and manufacturers will make it harder for other state and local governments to collect what they’re owed for the damages done to their communities.

“Morrissey has dropped the ball over and over again,” Petsonk said. “Most people know he lobbied for the big pharmaceutical companies and then moved to West Virginia, took over our lawsuits against the pharmaceutical industry, and settled them for pennies on the dollar. Morrissey has undercut the entire nation in the attempts by the attorneys general around America to recover for the massive damage done to our people by the overdose and opioid addiction crisis.”

Morrisey highlighted Petsonk’s youth and lack of experience when it comes to legal actions. Petsonk fired back, pointing to a record of legal victories in the courts on behalf of laid off workers and coal miners seeking the benefits they’re owed.

“I have represented hundreds, probably thousands now of West Virginia workers,” Petsonk said. “Coal miners fighting for retiree healthcare and black lung. I have secured millions of dollars in judgments and more in settlements from the most powerful companies in West Virginia. That’s the kind of successful high-impact results we should see from our attorney general. We’ve seen just the opposite from Patrick Morrisey.”

Petsonk wants to bring the office back to a consumer protection-driven role, something he said Morrisey has let become more of a public relations machine for himself instead of an instrument working for the people.

“Morrisey has allowed the number of consumer protection settlements to decline,” Petsonk said. “He has allowed massive chapter 11 bankruptcies to leave thousands of workers without the benefits and wages that they deserve. He should be there leading the charge — be it in circuit court, be it in the administrative agencies, and be it in a federal bankruptcy court — to protect what our people have earned and defend our basic rights. He’s done just the opposite. He’s abandoned us at every turn.”

Broadband expansion is also a subject that interests Petsonk. If elected, Petsonk said he would work to expand broadband cooperatives across the state and help county governments and regional economic planning groups apply for the permits to make these cooperatives happen.

“I have been out there promoting and supporting county commissions and regional planning and development councils … who want to form broadband cooperatives and promote access to affordable broadband,” Petsonk said. “I practically beat down the door of the Attorney General’s Office, pleading with him to do his job and provide legal counsel to the counties and the regional governments to assemble these complex telecommunications permitting projects to make the broadband development happen for our state. Morrissey hasn’t given us the time of day.”

Petsonk said he would be more aggressive on seeking better settlements with opioid manufacturers and distributors. He would immediately pull West Virginia from the federal ACA lawsuit and work with the federal government to pull down funding for substance abuse treatment and recovery. Petsonk would also use the office’s Civil Rights Division to help people with long-term recovery and rehabilitation.

“Morrissey has let that entire agency die on the vine under his watch,” Petsonk said. “We’ve got thousands of people dying and suffering in West Virginia as a result of it. We’ve got to get our people back into the workforce and back with their families. When you de-stigmatize a recovering addict and you give them the stability that comes from family reunification and a good job, you see much greater success with long-term recovery.”

Petsonk hopes that voters will see the danger in Morrisey’s ACA lawsuit and show their disapproval by casting their votes against the two-term Attorney General.

“People should remember Morrisey cannot undo the damage that he will cause if he wins his lawsuit to repeal healthcare for hundreds of thousands of West Virginians,” Petsonk said. “People need to understand that the stakes in my election are very clear. They’re very specific. Hundreds of thousands of West Virginians will lose their healthcare if Morrisey wins what he has asked for in his lawsuit against our federal healthcare programs. That is the principle issue in my race.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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