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.