Looking back, Charlie Brown a committed public servant

The Charleston Gazette

October 15, 1998

Editorial, Pg. P5A

Attempting to rescue a faded political legacy is probably a fool’s errand, but since the decade has faded even faster, maybe the future deserves an attempt to return some luster to a tarnished time. Attorney General Charles G. Brown was a greater public servant than we knew or, perhaps, cared to admit. It will be a long time before West Virginia ever sees another attorney general with the drive, leadership and inspiration of Charlie Brown.

I had time on my hands over a weekend, so I went down to the basement thinking that I would clean up some old boxes of papers and legal files. I came across a 4-inch stack of press clippings from The Charleston Gazette and from other newspapers, both state and national. Curiosity got the better of me, so I took the time to meander through a past shared by so many of us with Attorney General Charlie Brown. While I do not presently work in government, I consider myself a third-generation public servant. My grandfather was the postmaster of a rural village in Ohio. My father was the U.S. Marshal for northern Ohio. My first job in public service was as a teen-ager working on Election Day, lugging locked ballot cases into the basement of the Richland County Courthouse. My most recent work as a government employee was investigating bid-steering shenanigans in the award of certain public funds in the state of Virginia. This spans a period from the late ’60s to the mid-’90s in different areas of local, state or federal government — janitor, soldier, government lawyer and bureaucrat.

In 1985, Attorney General Brown recruited me out of the Ohio Attorney General’s office to work as a front-line staff attorney on consumer protection cases. Looking back upon my time in government service, it is obvious to me that I was able to accomplish the most for the general public good when I worked under the driven, yet inspired, leadership of Charlie Brown. He knew where the issues stood and how to solve the problems. Charlie pushed hard with limited resources to take on some tough customers. As an Assistant Attorney General, and later, as Deputy Attorney General of the Antitrust Division, I was charged with pursuing cases against the insurance industry and a wide variety of other headaches for the citizens of this state. Other deputies and assistants had equally tough challenges and have similar stories to tell.

This state has never seen a more activist Attorney General. I know some of what Brown achieved in detail, because I was expected to produce the results. His accomplishments stand as recorded in this newspaper. Other achievements are not so clearly reflected in the public record, but typify the energy, commitment and inspiration that Brown brought to his office and to public service. In 1986, the medical malpractice boycott led the Attorney General deep into the so-called “insurance crisis” where various types of coverage were being denied to governments, businesses and individuals all across the nation. This was a problem that no federal antitrust enforcement agency had the moral courage, sense of public outrage, or strength of will to challenge.

Never reported in the press at the time is how both Attorney General Brown and his staff had to work behind the scenes with their various counterparts in other major states to coddle, cajole and smooth ruffled feathers to ensure that potentially the largest government antitrust case ever taken against the insurance industry would develop further at all. There were several times during the development of this national case initiative when we were convinced that the proposed joint efforts of the various states would simply collapse into discord and inaction. Without the national leadership of Brown, the most important public interest litigation of the 1980s would never have been brought. Nor was there ever any reporting in the press on how Attorney General Brown constantly called his senior staff and other staff attorneys after midnight and on weekends to discuss work agendas and how litigation and policy objectives would be achieved. We worked long hours on Charlie Brown’s clock. He never spared himself either. The taxpayers were well-served. Many on his staff bailed out or burnt out under the pressure. Those who remained watched their hard work come to fruition in unique public interest accomplishments.

One last, quick point on Brown’s commitment to this state that, perhaps, best sums up the immediacy of his true ability to solve the hard problems in state government is simply just how fast he understood the key solutions to the vast market losses incurred at that time by Treasurer A. James Manchin’s office. While other government officials were dumbfounded, scratching their heads and nay-saying, Charlie Brown immediately embarked upon the successful legal strategy which forced various brokerage houses to disgorge substantial funds in settlement. One legacy of Brown’s leadership was the careful restructuring of the way public funds are now invested.

Charlie Brown had many critics both outside and inside his office. He was accused of being publicity-hungry and frantic in his activist agenda for the state. Looking back and knowing what I know now, I would prefer to see elected officials attempt great undertakings, like Charlie Brown undertook, and only partially succeed, than to see entire multimillion-dollar agencies constantly bogged down by institutional stasis.

A hard-working, unbelievably energetic, very effective and twice-elected public servant was forced from the political stage prematurely. The public has not been particularly well-served by the success of the detractors of Charlie Brown. Many fine young lawyers learned this terrible lesson – “Avoid public service at all costs.” I know because that is what they tell me when I talk with them about careers in government.

I packed the old Gazette clippings back into an old box and sadly asked myself whether I would ever have the chance again to work with an inspired, committed public servant like Charles G. Brown. No, I think not.