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Audits, not lawsuits, to boost accountability

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Recently, a legislative audit revealed a fiasco of financial mismanagement and highly problematic practices within our state government — approximately $4 million in unaccountable “loans” at the Department of Agriculture. When I took office a little more than a year ago, we similarly discovered that questionable accounting practices had plagued the Office of the Attorney General for nearly two decades. The common thread is that neither of these constitutional offices had undergone a full-scale audit in more than a decade.

It’s deplorable to think that constitutional offices may literally go decades without a comprehensive audit, and it is even harder to imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to change how state government fights fraud in West Virginia.

I wholeheartedly believe that the West Virginia Legislature must take immediate action to root fraud, waste and abuse out of state government. Unfortunately, the current law governing the frequency of legislative audits is insufficient – requiring that audits be performed within a two-year period “if practicable.” We need to amend this law now to increase accountability in state government.

That is why I have worked with several lawmakers to introduce legislation that would require comprehensive audits of the Legislature, constitutional officers and all state agencies at least once every four years.

The Legislative Auditor’s Office has significant expertise in the minutia of state government; let’s provide it with the resources it needs to root out waste, fraud, and abuse. If we expand the number of audits we perform on state agencies, constitutional offices and the Legislature immediately, I am confident that West Virginia taxpayers will be able to save many millions of dollars a year.

Unfortunately, the solution of several members of the House of Delegates to the problem of infrequent audits seems to be a continuation of business as usual in Charleston. As such, the House Democratic leadership is objecting to my request for more audits. Their alternative, so-called “false claims” legislation (HB 4001), would dramatically increase the number of lawsuits in West Virginia, while doing very little to actually improve accountability.

The House leadership’s “false claims” legislation falls short for a number of reasons.

First, the new law would apply retroactively, creating the potential for interference with existing investigations and cases of the Office of Attorney General and causing a dramatic expansion of lawsuits that may impair our economic recovery. Basic principles of fairness dictate that such fundamental changes in West Virginia tort law should be implemented prospectively.

Second, the “false claims” proposal would literally eviscerate our state’s Consumer Protection Division. Under the proposal, the Attorney General’s office will be charged with reviewing hundreds of new claims, many of which may have no merit whatsoever, requiring new staff to manage the review process at an estimated cost of over $600,000 annually to taxpayers. However, the legislation, as currently written, doesn’t allocate money to pay for these new costs, begging the question of where the money will come from to fund these tasks.

Third, the legislation likely would result in a flood of frivolous lawsuits that would further burden our judicial system. At a time when West Virginia is trying to dramatically improve its business climate, we need to ensure that potential claims for waste and fraud are reviewed and approved by the state’s chief legal officer and not unsupervised private lawyers seeking their own financial gain. Currently, the legislation does not even allow the Attorney General’s office to reject frivolous claims.

West Virginia’s business community has correctly stood strong against the House of Delegates’ so-called “false claims” legislation. Likewise, consumers also need to be concerned about the negative impact this “lawsuit-exploding” proposal would have on the enforcement of our consumer protection laws.

Efforts to root out waste, fraud and abuse are always welcome, but the Legislature should not put at risk our office’s proven track record of success. In fact, our office has secured many millions of dollars in consumer fraud settlements in the last year alone and will have additional announcements in the near future. Passage of this “false claims” legislation would do little more than cement West Virginia’s unfortunate reputation as a “judicial hellhole.”

A better option would be to put more energy into enforcing existing laws and ensuring that the legislative auditor has the resources necessary to perform the comprehensive audits of all state agencies that West Virginians deserve. When the status quo isn’t working, it’s time to do something new, not more of the same. Passing legislation that requires more frequent audits of our state government would be a good start.

 

— Patrick Morrisey is the Attorney General of West Virginia

 

 

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