CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia delegates passed a proposal Monday with stricter conflict-of-interest requirements for the attorney general.
Leading up to a 52-44 vote that followed party lines, Republican delegates called the bill an unconstitutional attack that singles out one officeholder, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican.
Democrats disagreed, arguing the attorney general should be held to a higher standard since he holds a unique position with executive and legal powers. A few Democrats directly targeted Morrisey, who has been under scrutiny for ties to two companies the state is suing.
The bill's passage continues a back-and-forth tussle between House Democrats and Morrisey, West Virginia's first Republican attorney general in 80 years.
"When you strip away personalities and politics, it comes down to the simple question: Is this good public policy? I truly believe this is," said House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison.
The proposal would require the attorney general to step aside in cases against companies that paid him or his family in the previous five years. And the attorney general wouldn't be able to take legal stances that conflict with state entities or officials.
A lawyer who steps in for the attorney general during conflicts would be subject to the same ethical standards, and the governor would supervise the stand-in attorney.
The Legislature would also have more control doling out money that the attorney general directly controls currently, what Del. Tim Manchin, D-Marion, called the legal officer's "slush fund."
The bill stems from Morrisey's ties to two pharmaceutical companies his office was suing. The case dealt with claims arising from prescription pill profits the companies made in West Virginia. Morrisey recused himself, and two other state agencies are now overseeing the case.
Morrisey inherited the cases from the previous attorney general.
Morrisey said the legislation singles out one office, while letting the governor and lawmakers abide by current conflict standards. He said the bill would cost millions of dollars in hiring outside lawyers and could jeopardize ongoing investigations.
"If this bill passes, it will plunge the state into a constitutional crisis," Morrisey said in a statement.
Speaker Miley has criticized Morrisey for ties to the two pharmaceutical companies, Cardinal Health and Sanofi, in the lawsuit. Miley and House Democrats said they invited Morrisey to testify in committees about how to improve the bill, and he didn't show up.
Morrisey said it would have been like testifying to a "kangaroo court," and added that all officeholders should have been involved in the reform.
Morrisey said he recused himself from the cases because he lobbied for Sanofi and his wife lobbies for both companies. Some Democrats weren't convinced.
"There are some of us who aren't sure that (Morrisey) is going to keep his duty of loyalty and to aggressively represent the state," Del. Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said on the House floor Monday. "Or whether maybe he is more loyal to the company that paid his wife millions of dollars."
Democrats removed two of the most controversial portions of the bill Monday. One would have required the attorney general to step aside in cases if he received campaign donations from any company the office was targeting.
Lawmakers deleted another section that would have limited Morrisey's ability to write legal briefs without additional approval. Morrisey has advocated a number of causes in legal briefs — such as gun-ownership rights — while bashing others, including the Affordable Care Act and federal environmental regulations affecting the coal industry.
The Senate will take up the bill next. Sen. President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said Monday that he didn't want to comment on the proposal until the bill made its way to his chamber.
Associated Press Writer Sarah Plummer contributed to this report.