Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The plot thickens in the "Wild and Wonderful" political world of West Virginia

Will Governor Joe Manchin III (photo Bob Bird for AP) be the third powerful figure in West Virginia to falter and lose his job due to impropriety, or at the least the appearance of it? The first was the Chief Justice of the W. Va. Supreme Court, Elliot Maynard, who lost his bid for re-election following disclosure of photos of Maynard on vacation in Monaco with the head of Massey Energy Company, which then had a significant case pending before the court. The second was the president of the West Virginia University, Mike Garrison, who resigned after a disclosure that he had granted an MBA to Governor Manchin's daughter, Heather Bresch, although she had not earned the requisite credits. Bresch, is a former business partner of Garrison's, and she works for Mylan, Inc., whose Chairman was a $20 million donor to the Univeristy and a major contributor to Manchin's campaign for governor.

Now Governor Manchin is under scrutiny for his actions in relation to a lawsuit against DuPont. Manchin filed an amicus brief in June arguing that the state's Supreme Court should review a $382 milion judgmenet against DuPont Company. Manchin says he was acting in the interest of due process, but new information shows he had consulted with DuPont officials before filing the document. The filing was unprecedented in a case in which the state is not a party.

Ian Urbina's story in today's New York Times provides some details of the contact Manchin had with DuPont in the run up to the brief's filing.

On June 2, the governor met with the vice president of DuPont and one of the company’s lawyers to discuss the brief, according to records of the meetings obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The governor also spoke on the phone with DuPont’s chairman and chief executive, Charles O. Holliday Jr., on Nov. 20, 2007, less than a month after the verdict, according to the documents.

Ultimately, DuPont lawyers supplied draft briefs to the governor, and those drafts featured several of the same arguments that ultimately appeared in governor's brief. The story goes on to tell of erased emails between the governor's office and DuPont, which would suggest that Manchin has something to hide. Manchin claims his involvement in the case arose from concern about the state's reputation as being a difficult place to do business.

Urbina's story provides this additional context:

This year, Forbes ranked West Virginia last among states with a business-friendly environment, and some residents saw the governor’s action as a welcome effort to rein in trial lawyers.

“The last thing West Virginia needs is another way to be out of the mainstream when it comes to business and the jobs business brings,” said an editorial in one of the state’s largest newspapers, The Daily Mail in Charleston. “West Virginia needs to look at these questions, which clearly do affect its business climate.”

So, what does the fact that West Virginia is a largely rural state have to do with any of this? As I've suggested before, those in power in rural states like West Virginia, be it in the public or private sector, often have long-standing connections with one another. To use the words of a Mississippi Supreme Court Justice in a 2000 decision where the court was being asked to recuse itself from deciding a matter involving one of its former members, "being a rural state, we are going to know some people."

It may also be that power is concentrated in fewer hands in such states, resulting in fewer checks and balances. A former DuPont lobbyist from West Virginia, Craig Skaggs, suggested as much in his comments on the Manchin-DuPont matter. He said he was "surprised that, even in a small state like West Virginia, DuPont would try to get the governor involved." He added, “I would never have done that.”

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