CHARLESTON — The Charleston Gazette has filed a lawsuit against West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, seeking documents about Morrisey’s role in his office’s ongoing case against a drug company that his wife lobbies for in Washington, D.C.
The drug distributor, Cardinal Health, also contributed to Morrisey’s inauguration party last year, and the company’s executives wrote checks to Morrisey’s campaign — before and after the November 2012 election.
Morrisey inherited the Cardinal Health case from ousted attorney general Darrell McGraw, who alleged that the drug company helped fuel Southern West Virginia’s problem with prescription drugs by shipping an excessive number of pain pills to the region.
The Gazette’s lawsuit follows 11 months of refusals by Morrisey to release records that might show if he took part in decisions about the Cardinal Health case.
The newspaper requested the documents under the state Freedom of Information Act. Morrisey has identified four, and up to eight, “potentially responsive” documents. However, his lawyers repeatedly have argued that Morrisey can keep the records secret, citing “attorney-client privilege” and other exemptions under state law.
Morrisey has said he stepped aside from the Cardinal Health lawsuit when he took office in January 2013.
The Gazette’s lawsuit, filed in Kanawha County Circuit Court, asks for a judge to review the eight documents and order Morrisey to release them. The Gazette argues that Morrisey can’t use attorney-client privilege as an excuse to withhold the records because Morrisey “has asserted that he recused himself and therefore was neither the attorney nor the client” in the Cardinal Health case.
“The public records requested by [the Gazette] represent an important matter concerning public issues of the highest interest, including the integrity of high government officials,” the Gazette’s lawsuit states.
The newspaper also seeks to stop Morrisey from refusing to disclose if records exist when people request documents under the FOIA. Last September, Morrisey’s office rejected the Gazette’s request for emails “that would show [Morrisey’s] involvement” in the Cardinal Health lawsuit, saying such documents, “if they exist,” would not be released.
In the lawsuit filed Aug. 14, the Gazette also alleges that Morrisey uses “boiler-plate” statements when rejecting requests for documents, citing a host of “FOIA exemptions that make it impossible to determine the true basis for such denial.”
The newspaper also takes issue with Morrisey’s practice of allowing people who request documents under the FOIA “to visually inspect, but not retain, photograph or copy” public records released by his office. State law doesn’t allow public officials to impose copying bans, according to the lawsuit, which has been assigned to Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King.
Morrisey spokeswoman Beth Gorczyca Ryan told The Associated Press on Thursday that Morrisey wouldn’t let the Gazette jeopardize attorney-client privilege.
“We believe that government should be open and transparent and always seek to be very responsive to public requests, but we cannot allow the Gazette to jeopardize the attorney-client privilege,” Ryan said. “The attorney-client privilege is the bedrock of our legal system and must be protected. We will not allow the Gazette to destroy that privilege because it would compromise the integrity of our state’s legal system and put at risk the state’s ability to enforce its laws.”
In July 2013, the Gazette reported that Cardinal Health contributed $2,500 to Morrisey’s inauguration and that Morrisey’s wife, Denise Henry, lobbied for Cardinal Health.
The Dublin, Ohio-based drug company paid Henry’s lobbying firm, Capitol Counsel, $400,000 in 2012, and another $210,000 between January and June 30 of last year, according to lobbying disclosure forms. Since 2001, Cardinal Health has paid $3.7 million to lobbying firms that Henry has worked for or owned.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Health executives donated $4,000 to Morrisey’s campaign in 2012, $3,000 of which came after McGraw’s office filed suit against the company. A Cardinal vice president also contributed $1,000 to Morrisey’s campaign in December 2012, a month after Morrisey defeated McGraw. Morrisey is holding post-election fundraisers to retire his campaign debt.
Morrisey has said he stepped aside from the Cardinal Health lawsuit because McGraw “implied” to him at a 2012 parade that McGraw filed the case to retaliate against Morrisey’s campaign. McGraw has denied ever talking with Morrisey about the Cardinal Health lawsuit.
Cardinal Health, the nation’s second-largest drug wholesaler, has a history of questionable drug distribution activities.
In 2012, Cardinal Health settled government allegations that the company shipped large amounts of painkillers in Florida for non-medical needs. Cardinal Health agreed to a two-year ban on its federal license to distribute controlled substances in that state.
In 2008, Cardinal Health paid a $34 million fine after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency cited the company’s Lakeland, Fla., distribution center for failing to notice suspicious orders for the painkiller hydrocodone.