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Ethics panel says prosecutor-commissioner business OK

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A county commissioner may operate a business with the county prosecuting attorney, so long as the commissioner does not vote on any matters dealing directly with the prosecutor, the state Ethics Commission ruled Thursday.

According to the advisory opinion, the commissioner had started a business last year with the county prosecutor and another individual to refurbish and sell apartment buildings and houses.

Members of the Ethics Commission concluded that the business arrangement would not pose a conflict, although the county commission has oversight over the prosecutor's office, including setting the office's budget.

The commissioner may continue to vote on issues involving the prosecutor's office, but should recuse himself on matters directly involving the county prosecutor, the Ethics opinion concludes.

Commission member Douglas Sutton asked that the advisory opinion clarify that the county prosecutor's salary is set by law, and not by the county commission.

"I never think we can be too redundant," he noted.

Earlier this year, Beckley lawyer John Wooton withdrew as candidate for the Raleigh County Commission, after a State Bar advisory opinion concluded he would not be able to practice criminal defense law if elected.

That opinion concluded it would be a conflict of interest, since the county commission controls the budget for the county prosecuting attorney's office, and theoretically could cut its budget to limit the office's ability to prosecute criminal cases.

Identities of persons requesting advisory opinions from the Ethics Commission are confidential.

Also Thursday, the commission:

  • Ruled that it would be a violation for the husband of an assistant superintendent of schools to be hired as a subcontractor for a company awarded a $140,000 consulting contract to assist three under-performing schools in the county.
  • Although the assistant superintendent did not participate in awarding the contract, and has no direct involvement with it, the commissioners concluded it would be a violation of a state law that prohibits county officials from having a private interest in a public contract.

  • Granted a property exemption to Michael Scragg, chief investigator in the state Medical Examiner's Office, to continue to lease a house from an agency vendor.
  • Scragg rents his home from a funeral home operator that has a contract with the state to transport bodies to the medical examiner's office.

    At the time Scragg first rented the house more than 10 years ago, state Ethics law did not prohibit such an arrangement, but the law was changed in 2009 to prohibit state officials and public employees from leasing property from state vendors or persons regulated by the particular state agency.

    Commissioners granted the exemption, concluding it would be a hardship to require Scragg and his family to move out of a house they've lived in for more than a decade.

  • Agreed to modify a payment schedule for James Huffman of Keyser from $350 to $200 a month.
  • As part of a conciliation agreement in January, Huffman agreed to pay $8,000 in fines to the Ethics Commission for ethics law violations stemming from his operation of a private environmental testing company during city work hours at the city's wastewater treatment plant, where he had worked as plant supervisor.

    Huffman, who was fired from the city job at the time of the ethics investigation, cited financial difficulties in his request.

    Besides Sutton, members of the Ethics Commission are Kemp Morton, Drema Radford, Jack Buckalew, Ronald Salmons, Jonathan Turak, Monte Williams, Robert Wolfe and Terry Walker.

    Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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