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Statehouse Beat: Is this ethical behavior?

We had a good case study in the vindictiveness of some legislators last week, regarding the state Ethics Commission.

Practically from day one, the Legislature has had, not a love-hate, but a tolerate-hate relationship with the Ethics Commission.

In one of its earliest advisory opinions, the commission ruled that legislators could not accept free rounds of golf while attending an out-of-town interim meeting. As we know, the Legislature got its revenge the next session, by revoking the Ethics Commission's ability to initiate investigations, an authority it would not get back for some 15 years.

The latest imbroglio dates back to last fall, when the commission rejected a request from a county conservation district supervisor for an exception to the Ethics Act's ban on public officials having private interests in public contracts so he could apply for a state Conservation Agency grant for his farm.

Commissioners were adamant about not making exceptions to one of the pillars of the Ethics Act.

So when the Senate took up a bill (SB365) to carve out that exception for the elected district supervisors in the law, commissioners took the unprecedented step of authorizing Executive Director Joan Parker to oppose the bill in the Legislature.

The concern, obviously, is that once the law makes one exception to allow a public official to use public office for private gain, the barn door will be open for all ilk of public officials to also get exempted.

(The Ethics Act already provides that the Ethics Commission can make hardship exceptions to the law on a case-by-case basis.)

Parker's efforts were effective, as the powerful House Rules Committee parked SB365 on the inactive calendar in the House on Wednesday.

That evidently miffed one of SB365's sponsors, Senate Government Organization Chairman Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, who was upset by what he regarded as Parker's interference to block his bill.

(As of Friday evening, House Rules had moved the bill back to the active calendar.)

 

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    Enter HB4588, an innocuous bill to simplify the process of filling vacancies on the Ethics Commission. Under current law, eight of the 12 members have to have held one of various public offices (Legislature, county and municipal government, school boards, public commissions).

    Also, no more than four members can come from the same congressional district, and no more than seven can be from the same political party.

    Over the years, that has created a nightmarish puzzle for the governor's office to try to fill vacancies on the commission, such as needing to fill a combination, for example, for a Republican ex-legislator from the 3rd Congressional District.

    As it arrived from the House, the bill was an easy fix, primarily changing the number of at-large members on the commission from four to eight.

    Then Snyder struck, amending the bill in Government Organization on Wednesday — hours after the House parked SB365 — to reduce the Ethics Commission from twelve to seven members, including a former legislator, former county official, former municipal official, former school board member, and a citizen member. Remarkably, it adds two new membership categories:

     

  • "One member who was employed as a registered lobbyist." Having a former lobbyist on the Ethics Commission makes about as much sense as having an ex-con on the Parole Board.
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    Snyder's amendment also removes a provision in current law that prohibits lobbyists from serving on the Ethics Commission, so theoretically, the seven-member commission could have both a former lobbyist and a current lobbyist as members. Not an ideal situation, considering one of the primary duties of the Ethics Commission is to regulate lobbyists.

     

  • "One member representing the agriculture community." Of all the professions out there, it seems peculiar to mandate that a farmer serve on the Ethics Commission — until you get back to the original cause of Snyder's snit — that the commission ruled that county conservation district supervisors could not have blanket exemption to receive conservation agency grants for their farms.
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    It's worth noting that in explaining the amendment on the Senate floor, Snyder did say it would reduce the commission to seven members and would "change criteria" for the appointments, but did not explain how.

     

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    If the amendment wasn't enough of a blunt instrument to beat the Ethics Commission over the head, Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, and the Senate Confirmations Committee also got into the act.

    Seven commissioners up for appointment or reappointment got questionnaires from the committee — which consisted of seven pointed questions about Parker's performance as executive director. (Which, as the only reporter to have covered the Ethics Commission from its inception, I would say has been exemplary.)

    Four commissioners were also called in for an unpublished Confirmations Committee meeting Wednesday, where they evidently were also grilled on the executive director.

    (In addition to not being publicized, I'm advised the meeting was not on streaming audio on the Legislature's website.)

    Commissioner Douglas Sutton got a call Tuesday evening to be in Charleston on Wednesday, which put a crimp in his day job — it was Ash Wednesday, and Sutton is a priest.

    Because of deadlines for this column, the ultimate outcome of SB365, HB4588, and the Confirmation Committee's action on the Ethics commissioners cannot be included here, but should be in the news section of today's paper.

    Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220304-348-1220.

     


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