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Ethics act is all that’s adequate

It's not uncommon for the governor and/or Legislature to start a new initiative, and then -- whether intentionally, through neglect, or because their attentions are diverted to a new issue --  allow it to whither away.

An example that comes to mind is the Governor's Office of Health Enhancement and Lifestyle Planning (GOHELP), created by the Legislature in 2009 to promote wellness and healthy lifestyle initiatives, reduce prescription drug costs by requiring disclosure of spending for advertising and payments, perks and inducements to physicians, and promote patient-centered medical homes, among other goals.

Though legislators and health care advocates were enthusiastic about the program, then-Gov. Joe Manchin did not share that attitude, nor has Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Shorted on budget and staff, GOHELP has been in abeyance, never really achieving any of its mandates.

Likewise, since its inception in 1989, the Legislature has run hot and cold on the state Ethics Commission.

One year after its inception, legislators miffed by an early ruling that barred them from accepting free rounds of golf, came back and weakened the Ethics Act, including revoking the commission's authority to initiate ethics investigations -- a power the Legislature wouldn't restore for another 15 years.

In 2005 and in 2011, the Legislature toughened the Ethics Act, both times in response to poor rankings from the national Center for Public Integrity.

However, as was made clear at Thursday's commission meeting, while the laws now may be adequate, the commission's funding and staffing is not.

Prominent Charleston lawyer Ned Rose convinced the commission to table a pending advisory opinion that would have sharply restricted the ability of employees of county assessors' offices -- and effectively, commissioners and other county elected officials -- to own rental or commercial properties.

Rose said it would prejudice an ethics complaint pending against his client, Steve Duffield, commercial property supervisor in the Kanawha County Assessor's Office. That complaint -- which originated from allegations made on a long-since defunct local talk radio show -- has been in limbo for nearly three years because of commission backlogs, Rose noted.

"You couldn't have a matter hanging fire like this in a circuit court, whether a civil or criminal case," Rose complained.

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To some extent, the Ethics Commission has been a victim of its own success, as Executive Director Joan Parker noted.

Both complaints of alleged ethics violations, and requests for advisory opinions on matters of ethical issues, have jumped of late -- evidence of publicity and public awareness about the Ethics Act.

Thursday's agenda had nine requests for advisory opinions, which is typical of recent months. Under the Ethics Act, the commission is required to act on each request within 30 days, and generally, a request for an advisory opinion is taken up at the commission's next monthly meeting.

For commission staff, each request has to be researched -- both for the facts at hand, and how the Ethics Act applies -- and a proposed advisory opinion has to be drafted and submitted to commissioners.

That's a tall order for a commission that currently, in addition to Parker, has but two full-time attorneys and one investigator -- and is about to lose longtime lobbyist registrar and administrator Lucy Suchy to retirement.

(Since January, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has raided the commission for three attorneys -- Marty Wright, Maryclaire Akers and Arlie Hubbard -- and investigator Gordon Ingold.)

Meanwhile, as evidenced Thursday, the commission has a large backlog of complaints pending. Parker said the commission has received 110 citizen complaints since January, not counting complaints initiated by the commission.

(As noted here before, some of those complaints may be frivolous or wildly exaggerated charges filed by political operatives in anticipation of having fodder for future campaign attack ads against rival candidates. Or, as Parker said, "We realize there are times when people use this process for less-than-pure motives.")

The commission has also contracted with a couple of part-time attorneys, and will contract with Suchy part-time after retirement to deal with issues such as the crunch of lobbyists' filings in January. Whether that will be sufficient to clear up the backlog seems doubtful, however.

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As we've seen with GOHELP, no matter how well-intentioned and significant an agency looks on paper, its goals will be undermined if it's understaffed and underfunded.

The Ethics Commission has a total annual budget of $703,013, down $52,494 from fiscal 2012-13, because of budget cuts. However, five years ago, Ethics had a budget of $716,423.

To put that into perspective, the Legislature's budget for printing drafts of bills during sessions is $760,000 this year.

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Finally, quote of the week, from Ethics Commissioner Jack Buckalew: "I'm not about to vote against him."

That was regarding a motion to waive a $170 fine against former lobbyist (and World's Strongest Man champion) Phil Pfister.

Pfister, who was laid off from Chesapeake Energy this summer when the natural gas company eliminated much of its West Virginia public relations staff, hand-delivered a lobbyist termination notice to the Ethics Commission headquarters, but the form was misplaced by a temporary employee.

Pfister was inadvertently fined $10 a day in late fees for failing to file the May-August lobbyist expenditure disclosure by the Sept. 15 due date.

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


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