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House speaker blocked from teachers union job

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Ethics Commission refused Thursday to sign off on West Virginia House Speaker Rick Thompson's plan to take a job as chief lawyer for the West Virginia Education Association, a group that routinely lobbies the Legislature.

Thompson wanted to work for the teachers union, while continuing to serve as House speaker.  

Commission members concluded that Thompson would have an "inescapable conflict of interest."

"This is truly over the top," said Terry Walker, an Ethics Commission member and former legislator.

WVEA President Dale Lee said the teachers union wanted to hire Thompson as general counsel.

"We had an opening, and we saw this as an opportunity to hire a highly-qualified, well-respected attorney," Lee said Thursday night. "It's a shame. Where do you draw the line of who his clients can be?" 

Thompson requested an advisory opinion from the Ethics Commission Thursday, saying he wanted to work as an "independent contractor" with an "association whose membership consists of public employees." Thompson said he would continue to work out of his law office in Wayne County.  

After the meeting, Thompson's spokeswoman, Stacy Ruckle, said the House speaker no longer intends to take the job. She said Thompson wouldn't disclose the name of the group that planed to hire him. 

"Because he's not going to be accepting this offer, he doesn't feel at liberty to say who the contract was with," Ruckle said.

The Gazette requested to talk directly to Thompson, but he did not call back. Though Thompson wouldn't reveal that he planned to work for the WVEA, the newspaper called numerous union lobbyists Thursday, and Lee acknowledged his group wanted to hire the House speaker.

On Thursday, the Ethics Commission rejected a proposed advisory opinion -- written by agency lawyers -- that would have given the green light to Thompson to sign a contract with the WVEA.

Instead, Ethics Commission members directed agency staff to write a new formal advisory opinion, saying it would be a conflict of interest for Thompson to sign such a contract.

"I basically believe this would be an impossible task to perform without a conflict of interest," said Jack Buckalew, an Ethics Commission member."

The advisory opinion didn't include Thompson's name, but said the request came from a "presiding officer of a house of the West Virginia Legislature," who is also a licensed attorney.

After Thursday's Ethics Commission meeting, the Gazette contacted Senate President Jeff Kessler, who denied seeking the opinion, and Thompson.

"As speaker, I have always pursued an open legislative process that ensures accountability, and that is why I advocated strengthening our state's ethics laws," Thompson said in a prepared statement. "I am grateful to be able to seek the opinion of the Ethics Commission on such a matter."

In the statement, Thompson added that he has never represented a client that lobbied the Legislature.

"And while the contract legal work I was offered would not have involved anything related to lobbying, I though it prudent to consult with the Ethics Commission," he said.

The proposed advisory opinion that would have authorized Thompson to work for the WVEA included several stipulations.

The staff-written opinion said that Thompson couldn't sponsor legislation or "influence members of the Legislature behind the scenes" to support bills that would give public employees [teachers] pay raises. The opinion also prohibited Thompson from helping to set the WVEA's legislative agenda, or hiring or firing the union's lobbyists.

However, commission members concluded that Thompson, as House leader, wouldn't be able to avoid a conflict of interest -- even if he tried to distance himself from legislation that directly benefited his new employer.

"They [legislative leaders] have tremendous influence behind the scenes," Walker said.

After rejecting the proposed advisory opinion, commissioners voted to table the matter until their May meeting, when they may take up the revised opinion.

According to Thompson's proposed contract, WVEA would have paid the House speaker a flat-rate annual fee for his legal services. Portions of the contract language were included in the proposed advisory opinion.

Thompson planned to conduct legal research and advise WVEA leaders about corporate, personnel and election issues. The contract states that Thompson would not lobby fellow lawmakers on behalf of the teachers union.

In his request for an ethics opinion, Thompson advised the agency "that as a citizen legislator, he obviously has the right and need to hold additional employment, as do nearly all of the other 133 legislative members." Thompson also promised not to vote on legislation that would affect him directly.

As of late Thursday, Thompson had not called the Ethics Commission to withdraw his request for an advisory opinion, said Theresa Kirk, the agency's executive director.

Even if Thompson rescinds the request, Ethics Commission members may still want to take up the revised opinion -- which would bar him from working with the association -- at their May meeting, she said.

WVEA Executive Director David Haney said he encouraged Thompson to contact the Ethics Commission about his plans to work for the teachers union "to make sure there were no problems." Thompson agreed, Haney said.

"I would have liked to have the services of the speaker," Haney said Thursday night. "We have had a great relationship with him, not only as speaker, but as an individual. He is a well-qualified attorney."

Haney said Thompson hasn't yet notified him that he will withdraw his application for the union job.

"If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out," Haney said. "We'll abide by the Ethics Commission's decision and look for someone else." 

Judy Hale, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said she was stunned that Thompson wanted to work for the rival union while serving as House speaker.

"This sounds very strange," Hale said. "This is the first I've heard about it. How could he do that?"   

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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