CHARLESTON – For the past 16 years, consumer advocates from the Attorney General’s Office have traveled to senior centers, schools, libraries, post offices, fairs and 4-H camps across the state, educating West Virginians about consumer fraud.
The advocates have talked to people about identity theft and how to avoid email and telemarketing scams. They also have provided social media safety tips for kids, handed out consumer rights materials and fielded consumer complaints about local businesses.
On Jan. 31, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey abruptly shelved the consumer advocate program, records show.
Morrisey, a Republican who defeated longtime Attorney General Darrell McGraw in last November’s election, ordered the consumer advocates to cancel all planned appearances at community events, according to office emails. He also directed the employees not to schedule any additional speaking engagements at schools, senior centers and other sites.
“Management is in the process of revising the program, and you will receive directions as soon as possible,” Morrisey’s office wrote to the advocates in a Jan. 30 email.
Five months later, the consumer advocates – at least the ones who Morrisey hasn’t fired – still await the attorney general’s directions.
The remaining employees have kept their job titles and remain on the state payroll but no longer work on consumer education. At least three of the consumer advocates have been reassigned to answer phones and transport office mail, according to emails.
Morrisey would not answer questions about the consumer advocate program last week. “As a matter of policy, we will not discuss personnel issues,” Morrisey said in a prepared statement.
In the statement, Morrisey hinted that the consumer advocates likely would take on a more business-friendly role once the office completes an overhaul of the Consumer Protection Division.
“In the first five months of our administration, our team has been working hard to develop the templates and tools to help educate individuals and businesses about our state’s consumer protection laws, hire new employees and meet with individuals and businesses about ways to enhance compliance with our state’s consumer protection laws,” Morrisey said.
McGraw started the consumer protection program in 1997 with the idea of taking his office’s consumer services directly to people. The consumer advocates – also called “consumer protection advocates” – spoke mostly to senior citizens, who often are targeted by scammers and telemarketers.
The employees also visited schools to talk to teenagers about consumer rights and stopped at colleges where they met with undergraduates about student loan rip-offs.
The consumer advocates, who make $35,000 to $48,000 a year, work out of the attorney general’s branch office on Quarrier Street in downtown Charleston, as well as from field offices in Elkins, Martinsburg, Parkersburg, Kingwood and the Northern Panhandle.
In late January, the consumer advocates started raising questions about their job duties after Morrisey appointed an acting director, Heather Connolly, for the office’s Consumer Protection Division.
Martinsburg-based consumer advocate Argina Layne suggested a conference call to discuss upcoming “events and booths.” The Attorney General’s Office had 11 consumer advocates at the time.
The following day, the advocates received a terse email from Morrisey’s office manager: “You are NOT to schedule any events/appearances, and you are to CANCEL any that you have scheduled.”
Morrisey also directed the advocates to provide a list of past events they attended, dates and contact information for the groups that sponsored the events.
The consumer advocates didn’t get another assignment from Morrisey until May 9.
Morrisey’s office directed the advocates to call their contacts at schools, senior centers and other sites and ask “what services they need or would like to see from our office,” according to an email sent to the employees.
Morrisey also told the consumer advocates to ask about upcoming events, and if the Attorney General’s Office “was helpful to them in the past and if they would like to continue on.”
That same day, Morrisey’s office sent a separate email to four of the consumer advocates: “Starting tomorrow, all advocates in the office will be starting mail and phone coverage ….”
The next day, Morrisey had a new – and completely different – assignment for the consumer advocates. He directed them to answer questions about how they would educate local business owners about the state’s consumer protection laws.
“How would you sit down with a local business owner to explain how to comply with our consumer protection laws?” a Morrisey subordinate wrote in a May 10 email to the advocates.
Morrisey also gave the advocates seven days to develop a “template” about “how you would go about doing this sort of business visit/contact.” He said the new assignment should take priority over the previous directive about providing a list of past events they attended.
By the end of the month, Morrisey fired five of the consumer advocates, according to state personnel records. Morrisey listed “office restructuring” as the reason for the dismissals.
It was unclear if – or how – the consumer advocates answered Morrisey’s questions.
Morrisey would not say how many advocates now work in his office. He has hired two advocates – both Republican activists who previously worked on his campaign – and already fired one of them.
In his statement last week, the attorney general said he would maintain a “strong consumer protection division and will run the office” in a manner that “makes West Virginia proud.” He said he plans to announce “additional initiatives to enhance and restructure” his office.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Morrisey said. “It will take more than a few months to fully transform the office of attorney general and improve our state’s business climate while simultaneously maintaining strong consumer protection practices.”
This story first appeared Sunday in The Charleston Gazette. It is used here with permission.