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Editorial: Consumer protection remains important mission for agency

Jul. 04, 2013 @ 11:57 PM

As much criticism as new Attorney General Patrick Morrisey leveled at his predecessor during last year's election campaign, changes in the workings of the Attorney General's Office were expected when he took the helm in January.

No doubt, some were in order. Darrell McGraw, attorney general for 20 years, had aggressively gone after businesses whom he felt had done consumers wrong, but some believed his actions contributed to the state's reputation as having a poor legal climate for business. Among his campaign pledges, Morrisey said he would work to improve the business climate.

But as Morrisey retools the Attorney General's Office, let's hope he doesn't go too far in the other direction. At this point, there are questions about where he's headed regarding consumer protection.

Among McGraw's initiatives was establishing a group of consumer advocates who would meet with groups around the state -- including senior citizens and students -- to educate them about consumer rights and consumer fraud schemes. There's little question that among the benefits to McGraw was getting his name before the public. However, the idea of alerting the public to fraud and spelling out consumer rights was and remains an important mission.

But the consumer advocacy arm of the office now appears to be in disarray, according to a report in the Sunday Gazette-Mail in Charleston. Within a month of Morrisey taking office, the dozen or so consumer advocates were told to cancel all planned appearances at community events and instructed not to schedule any more, the newspaper reported. Not until May did they receive new instructions, and those since have been changed more than once. According to documents, the latest orders were to figure out how they would educate business owners about the state's consumer protection laws and to develop a "template" to guide visits and contacts with business owners.

By the end of May, according to the newspaper report, Morrisey had fired five of the consumer advocates.

So where do things stand now?

Morrisey would not answer the newspaper's questions about the consumer advocate program last week, citing the need to keep personnel issues private. But he did say this: "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."

So where the overhaul leads remains to be seen.

Educating businesses about the state's consumer protection laws and how they can comply is a reasonable approach, particularly if the information is focused on areas where businesses often fall short. But protecting consumers can't fully be accomplished with a one-sided focus. Consumers have to be part of the equation, both in terms of hearing their complaints as well as keeping them informed of fraudulent and unethical practices. We trust that Morrisey's overhaul will place adequate emphasis on the consumer protection aspect, too.

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