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Ethics complaint against assessor's employee dismissed

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A complaint against an employee in the Kanawha County Assessor's Office accused of undervaluing rental properties he owns has been dismissed by the state Ethics Commission's Probable Cause Review Board.

In a letter dated Jan. 6, the board dismissed a complaint filed in 2010 against Stephen Duffield, commercial property supervisor, alleging he undervalued 30 rental properties he owns in Kanawha County.

"After conducting a thorough investigation into the allegations and reviewing the relevant evidence and law, it is the opinion of the Probable Cause Review Board of the West Virginia Ethics Commission that probable cause does not exist to believe respondent Stephen Duffield materially violated any prohibition of the Ethics Act," the letter states.

Duffield's attorney, Ned Rose, said Tuesday he was pleased with the decision.

At the November Ethics Commission meeting, Rose called the allegations "talk-radio crap."

The complaint, filed by Wanda Carney, was based on statements made on a now-defunct Charleston talk-radio program which made numerous allegations of property undervaluations in the county.

At the same time the complaint was filed, a request for an advisory opinion was submitted to the commission, asking whether it is ethical for employees of county assessor's offices to own commercial property in those counties.

In December, commissioners approved an advisory opinion sharply restricting the ability of commercial supervisors in assessor's offices to own, sell or lease commercial property in the county in which they work.

The ruling concluded such employees may not own, lease or sell commercial properties in their counties, may not participate in public auctions of commercial properties, and may lease residential properties in the county only if they have taken no regulatory action on the properties.

"It is entirely prospective. It doesn't affect the complaint," Rose said of the advisory opinion.

Rose said he disagrees with the commission's conclusion that assessor's office employees have broad discretion in setting property valuations.

"They take the position that an assessor is a regulatory body," Rose said. "I just don't think that's a sound construction."

Because the Ethics Commission failed to file required public notice of its December meeting, commissioners will have to reconsider and re-vote on the advisory opinion, as well as all other actions taken, at the next commission meeting, scheduled for February.

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


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