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Ethics Commission tables opinion on commercial real estate

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Members of the West Virginia Ethics Commission tabled an advisory opinion that would have sharply restricted the ability of employees of county assessors' offices to own commercial real estate after attorney Ned Rose said the opinion would prejudice an ethics complaint pending against his client.

Rose also warned that the proposed advisory opinion would make it impossible for many county employees and officials, including county commissioners, to own any property other than their private residences in their home counties.

"To the extent you say people involved in the valuation of property can't own properties in their counties other than their homes is a very serious issue," he told the Ethics Commission.

The request for an advisory opinion asks the commission if a full-time employee of an assessor's office could be involved in a real estate business in that county, including leasing residential properties, buying and selling commercial properties and buying property at county foreclosure auctions.

Rose said his client has had an ethics complaint pending against him since February 2011, and said the proposed advisory opinion, which would strictly limit the ability of such employees to be involved in real estate transactions, would prejudice the complaint against him.

"It will have a dramatic effect on my client's life," Rose said.

Rose did not disclose the client's name at the meeting. However, it was later confirmed to be Steve Duffield, commercial property supervisor in the Kanawha County Assessor's Office. At roughly the same time the ethics complaint was filed, Duffield was accused on a Charleston talk-radio program of undervaluing about 30 rental properties he owns in the county. He has denied the allegations.

Rose called the allegations, "talk-radio crap."

Rose also complained that, nearly three years after the original complaint was filed, his client has yet to even have a hearing before the Ethics Commission on the matter.

"I can't overstate the offense I take that, almost three years out, we've had no resolution of this complaint," said Rose, who suggested the request for an advisory opinion was submitted by the complainant.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Joan Parker said she was embarrassed by the backlog and delays but that the office has been overwhelmed with ethics complaints. She also said the commission's small staff has been hard hit with turnover.

So far this year, the commission has received 110 active citizen complaints and also is investing complaints initiated by the commission.

As to whether the request for an advisory opinion was intended to affect the ethics complaint against Duffield, Parker commented, "We realize there are times when people use this process for less-than-pure motives."

Rose said the proposed opinion, limiting the ability for county employees and officials who oversee property valuations from owning commercial property in the county, could have widespread implications, including affecting county commissioners, who hear property valuation appeals sitting as the board of equalization and review.

Also Thursday, the Ethics Commission:

• Formally adopted advisory opinions barring police officers from participating in a program to award restaurant gift coupons to children and individuals for good deeds and law-abiding behaviors, and prohibiting public officials and employees from soliciting businesses for gift certificates to present to volunteers. Both would violate the ethics law's prohibition of endorsements of private-sector businesses.

• Reversed last month's decision to prohibit a city police department from accepting grants from a private foundation set up solely to benefit the department, after Parker determined that previous advisory opinions and legislative rules permit the accepting of those funds, as long as they are strictly used for public purposes.

• Approved an employment exemption for commission Deputy General Counsel Arlie Hubbard. That will allow Hubbard, who had been with the Ethics Commission for 10 months, to become the third commission attorney hired away by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

Hubbard, who joins Marty Wright and Maryclaire Akers in the Attorney General's Office, will head up a new property division.

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


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