CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia House Speaker Rick Thompson on Friday defended his decision to seek a state Ethics Commission opinion on whether he could legally go to work for the West Virginia Education Association, while keeping his legislative leadership post.
Thompson, who has since dropped plans to work for the teachers union, said the dual roles wouldn't have created a conflict. He said he would have put his House speaker job first.
Earlier this week, the Ethics Commission concluded that Thompson would have an "inescapable conflict," if he took the job with the teachers union and remained House speaker.
"Obviously, I don't agree with the decision," Thompson, D-Wayne, said in a telephone interview Friday. "I certainly would not do anything wrong. But if that's their decision, that's their decision, and I will abide by it."
Thompson, a Wayne County lawyer, acknowledged that he recently negotiated a contract with the teachers union. The contract would have paid Thompson a flat annual fee for legal services. Thompson said he applied for the WVEA job because business has slowed at his law firm and the teachers group had an opening.
The two sides agreed to wait for an Ethics Commission decision before Thompson started working for the WVEA, he said.
"I wanted to make sure everything I did had the approval of the Ethics Commission," Thompson said. "That's what they're there for. It's the first time I've ever asked them [for an advisory opinion]."
On Thursday, Ethics Commission lawyers introduced an advisory opinion that would have given Thompson the green light to keep his House speaker post and still go to work for the teachers union.
The staff-written agreement would have prohibited Thompson from sponsoring legislation that gave pay raises to teachers. The WVEA routinely lobbies state lawmakers for pay increases.
"The commission finds he has a unique financial interest in such legislation as the association's members are public employees who pay membership dues, including payments through payroll deductions," the proposed advisory opinion stated.
Thompson also would have been barred from helping the WVEA set its legislative agenda, and hiring or firing the union's lobbyists, according to the proposed opinion.
At Thursday's meeting, Ethics Commission members rejected the staff-recommended advisory opinion. The commission said it would be impossible for Thompson to avoid a conflict because of his powerful role as House speaker.
Commission members directed the agency's lawyers to write a new opinion that advised Thompson that he would have an "inescapable conflict" if he accepted the teachers union job. They plan to vote on the revised opinion next month.
The staff-written opinion didn't include Thompson's name, but said the request came from "the presiding officer of a house of the West Virginia Legislature," who "is also a licensed attorney."
Thompson said he never requested anonymity. Instead, he followed the Ethics Commission's standard procedures, which keep secret the names of public officials who request advisory opinions.