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Statehouse Beat: Another bad mark for W.Va.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia could be in line to get another black eye when it comes to transparency in government, judging by a draft copy of an upcoming Center for Public Integrity's state report cards on financial disclosure requirements for state Supreme Court justices.

The draft copy gives West Virginia an F, scoring 46.8 points out of a possible 100.

West Virginia loses 5 points because justices don't have to disclose outside sources of income by exact amount, and a total of 15 points total for not having to disclose income from investments, gross value of investments, or investment transactions during the reporting period.

It lost another 12 points total for failing to require justices to fully disclose creditors, and for failing to require a description and dollar value of all liabilities. The state also lost 6 points for not requiring a description and dollar value of all gifts received.

(The point deductions in the gifts category seems a bit unfair, since unlike some states, public officials in West Virginia are prohibited under the Ethics Act from accepting gifts from interested parties valued at more than $100.)

Joan Parker, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, said the center sent the draft copy of the West Virginia report card last month for review.

She noted that justices (and candidates for Supreme Court) are required to submit the same financial disclosure form as all other public officials and candidates for public office.

On the bright side, West Virginia could have lost another 14 points on the CPI scorecard for failing to require financial disclosure for spouses and dependent children. Those requirements were added to the Ethics Act in 2011.

West Virginia also got the maximum 20 points for holding justices accountable for timely and accurate filings of disclosures, and for having the financial reports available for easy public access on the Ethics Commission's website.

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Speaking of the Ethics Commission, the commission is trying to resolve a huge backlog in pending complaints and requests for advisory opinions.

With two meetings pending for this calendar year, the commission has already dealt with more advisory opinions in 2013 (49) than all of 2012 (46).

Parker said that may be a function of good educational and outreach programs, so that public officials are aware that they should formally request the advice of the Ethics Commission on ethical questions.

Meanwhile, complaints of possible unethical behavior, which had been running in the low 40s each year, jumped to 120 complaints in 2012, and 103 complaints with nearly three months remaining in 2013.

Part of that may be a jump in frivolous complaints filed by Republican operatives to provide fodder for future campaign ads. However, as Parker noted, all complaints have to go before the commission's Probable Cause Review Board before they can be dismissed as frivolous.

The increase in filings, coupled with a spike in turnover of Ethics Commission attorneys (with both Marty Wright and Maryclaire Akers departing to join the attorney general's office), has created a backlog of complaints with cases dating back to 2009.

With that in mind, the Ethics Commission Thursday approved hiring Anna Bailey and Robert Baker as contract attorneys, at $100 per hour, to help Parker and the commission's three full-time attorneys address the backlogged cases.

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Speaking of ethics, isn't it ironic that Dana Holgorsen and Doc Holliday can appear in TV commercials, but Glen Gainer was sanctioned for appearing in a promotional video, and cops in one city were told they can't reward citizens with restaurant coupons?

Also, a reader notes that a current TV spot features members of the Williamson Fire Department touting mattresses from Big Sandy Furniture, probably in violation of the Ethics Act.

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Finally, Peg Griffith stopped by to share an interesting story about how she got fired -- from a volunteer state job.

Griffith, a retired secretary who worked for the state and later for Kanawha County, said she likes to keep busy volunteering for various organizations, including the state Division of Culture and History -- where she worked until this past May 25.

Griffith said she was working in the Culture Center Green Room for the Vandalia Gathering, and recalled the conversion turned to concerns from musicians and vendors that this year's scaled-back event could be the precursor for permanently marginalizing or eliminating Vandalia.

Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith overheard the discussion and was empathic that the concerns were unfounded.

In the heat of the discussion, Griffith said she blurted out, "You're not even a native West Virginian." (Which was incorrect. Reid-Smith grew up in Barboursville.)

She said Reid-Smith glared at her, and immediately exited the room. A few minutes later, Griffith said Culture and History program manager Pat Cowdery came in, telling her, "I've got to let you go."

Griffith has been trying to get reinstated, having worked the Vandalia Gathering for the past two years, but said her letter to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was referred on to Education and Arts Secretary Kay Goodwin, with no follow-up to date.

(Speaking of Culture and History, longtime General Services Division business manager Sue Chapman will become the division's director of administration, effective Oct. 16.)

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


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