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Statehouse beat: Speaking on ethics issues

Given that he campaigned on employing prosecutorial and investigatory powers that the state attorney general actually doesn't have, word that Attorney General Patrick Morrisey agreed to "lend" deputy attorney general Marty Wright to the Ethics Commission has raised eyebrows.

Wright, who was deputy counsel for the Ethics Commission prior to joining Morrisey's team (and did a good job in that capacity), has several matters pending with the commission, the foremost being hearings pending against Beckley Mayor Emmett Pugh for alleged ethics violations.

Conspiracy theorists, however, are concerned that unlike the attorney general, the Ethics Commission does have investigatory and adjudicatory powers under the law -- and that Morrisey could use Wright's formal affiliation with the Ethics Commission as a way to usurp powers that he otherwise lacks as AG.

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Speaking of, the Ethics Commission has called a special meeting for Thursday to approve the hiring of a new executive director to replace Theresa Kirk, who is returning to private practice after a total of nine years at the commission.

Indications are that the commission's current legal counsel, Joan Parker, is the pick. That would continue a tradition of sorts. Of the three individuals to have served as executive director in the commission's 24-year history, two -- Kirk and Lew Brewer -- previously served as counsel.

Only the commission's first executive director, Rick Alker, did not move up that route.

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Sticking with the Ethics Commission, the commission's 2012 annual report includes this interesting factoid: Since 2008, the number of registered lobbyists has dropped by more than 100, to 332.

However, lobbyist spending on legislators and other public officials has increased steadily each year, with the record 2012 total of $566,785 coming in nearly $250,000 higher than reported lobbyist spending for 2004.

Why? Well, the decline in lobbyists after 2008 can be attributed to a combination of improved technology and a weak economy.

Take my friend, the late Les Milam, for example. Although registered as a lobbyist, he didn't lobby legislators per se, but tracked bills for clients. (Prior to the legislative website, that required physically being at the Capitol to pick up paper copies of House and Senate journals, the bills themselves, and committee agendas.)

As the recession hit, and the legislative website approached near-real time updating, many businesses cut the expense of hiring bill trackers, since it could be done with in-house staff via the website.

As for why spending has increased at an inverse pace to the number of lobbyists, a key factor was the addition of first-dollar reporting in 2005 legislation to toughen the Ethics Act.

That was a simple, but significant change, eliminating the plausible deniability that went with the old $25 threshold before lobbyists had to report spending on any individual legislator or public official.

Among other things, that ended the endless tab at the Marriott bar, in which multiple lobbyists would split the legislators' nightly bar tab, providing a cover so that there would be no way to verify that any one lobbyist had spent more than $25 on any one legislator.

It's fair to say that lobbyists' spending hasn't nearly doubled since 2004 -- but they are more accurately reporting what they spend.

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The Lottery Commission is taking expressions of interest from architectural and engineering firms to renovate the 7th, 8th and 9th floors of the Lottery headquarters office tower on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The three floors, occupied primarily by Blue Cross-Blue Shield, were not included in the $13.45-million renovation of the other 10 floors of the building in 2010, but Lottery assistant director John Myers said the plan was to get to them eventually.

Myers said there's about 2,000 square feet of empty space on the 9th floor, where offices can be relocated during a planned floor-by-floor upgrade. Ultimately, that space will be used for state offices.

Blue Cross' lease extends through September 2014, and Myers said the Lottery would hope to keep them as tenants beyond that time.

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Finally, a reader called to decry the lack of common sense in the congressional debate on gun control. An avid hunter, he noted that federal law prohibits him from having more than three shells in his shotgun when hunting game birds.

"The federal government must like birds better than kids," he commented.

I told him I'd gotten a call during the weekend from the NRA, which was in the guise of conducting a poll - but seemed geared to riling up the true believers.

It started with a recorded message from Wayne LaPierre, saying something to the effect that if Congress tries to impose gun law restrictions, "they'll have to answer to NRA's four million members." (I thought, heck, I'm a member of a lobbying organization that's got 10 times that many members, and we don't go around threatening Congress.)

Then, the pollster asked questions including whether I was offended that President Obama was exploiting the Newtown tragedy. I responded I didn't think he was exploiting the tragedy so much as reacting to it.

When the pollster got into disparaging questions regarding Sen. Diane Feinstein's bill to ban assault weapons, I told him that, frankly, I would support passage of the bill. (For some reason, the call abruptly ended at that point ...)

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


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