Ethics law falling short of promise to clean up government, critics say
In 1974, mine inspectors wanted a pay raise. So they put hundreds of
dollars in a brown paper
bag and headed to Charleston.
The money was intended for Delegate T. J. Scott, D-McDowell, who
increase their salaries. They gave the bag to
the chairman of the House Finance Committee, and
asked him to deliver
it to Scott. The finance chairman turned the money over to Lewis
D-Raleigh, who was then speaker of the House.
McManus remembers calling the mine inspectors in for a meeting. They
confirmed the payment to
Scott, and apparently didn't think they had
done anything wrong.
"At the end of the meeting, their leader turned to me and asked, 'What
about our raise?'"
"I told him, 'Maybe next year, but not
Scott said the mine inspectors gave him the money to help them hire a
lobbyist. The House Rules
Committee reprimanded Scott for
"irresponsible actions." He stayed in office another six years.
Scott was never charged with any violation of the law. Under the
existing laws, he had
committed no crime. For Scott to be convicted of
bribery, prosecutors would have had to show he
accepted the money, and
the money influenced his actions.
Today's House clerk was brand-new to the Legislature in 1973. Greg Gray
case occurred today, he would probably been
"kicked out on his ear."
"There probably would be a criminal investigation," Gray
whole tenor of things has
changed for the better. Government is
more open now."
When he became governor in January 1989, Gaston Caperton called an
session before the regular session. First on his
agenda: a new governmental ethics law.
The ethics law promised to clean up state
government, including the Legislature. But
say more reforms are needed for it to live up to
Corruption led to ethics law
Several prominent corruption cases in the late 1980s helped lead to the
passage of the 1989
ethics bill, according to Robert "Chuck"
Chambers, the bill's sponsor and former Speaker of the
Two successive presidents of the state Senate were convicted on federal
corruption charges for
accepting money from lobbyists.
Former Senate President Larry Tucker pleaded guilty to accepting
$10,000 from lobbyist Sammy
D'Annunzio of Clarksburg. He reportedly
tried to return the money, but D'Annunzio was
cooperating with federal
investigators and wore a tape recording device during the meeting.
Tucker's predecessor as Senate president, Dan Tonkovich, also pleaded
guilty to extorting money
from gambling and insurance interests.
In 1988, former Gov. Arch Moore was already accused of extortion, mail
fraud and tax evasion,
charges that would earn him a prison term in
1990. At the trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph
Savage said, "Let
there be no mistake. Arch Moore is a 'criminal.'"
"Political corruption helped create a demand for change," Chambers
Chambers had sponsored ethics bills for several years in the
Legislature, but made little
progress. In 1989, the West Virginia
Governmental Ethics Act passed with only one dissenting
"The passage of the West Virginia Governmental Ethics Act
provides the state with one of the
most stringent sets of ethics
laws in the nation," Caperton wrote in 1989, "and sends a
unequivocal message: West Virginia will not tolerate dishonesty, influence
or conflicts of interest."
The act put into law a set of ethical standards for legislators
and everyone else in state
government. It required legislators
to disclose their personal financial interests. It told
register and say who employs them. It puts limits on the gifts and
legislators can accept from lobbyists.
But critics say the ethics law left open
initiate investigations of wrongdoing. Lawmakers and lobbyists only need
some of their financial dealings.
Some say the paper bags of cash have been replaced by
contributions to ever-more-expensive
Hard to vote against friends
Before the law's passage, some legislators accepted gifts and meals
from lobbyists without a
second thought, Chambers
ethics law helped them recognize how being wined and
looked to the public.
"The new law woke people up," Chambers
"It does create an
improper appearance, even if
there are no improper actions."
In the old days, lobbyists reportedly delivered cases of alcohol to
legislators, and free mixed
drinks were served out of a hallway closet.
As recently as the late 1980s, coal companies operated an exclusive
hangout for legislators,
called the Coal Suite. Perry Bryant remembers
a legislator taking him to see the suite on the
top floor of the
Charleston House Holiday Inn. He was a lobbyist for Citizens Action Group
the time; today, he lobbies for the West Virginia Education
The suite had a free open bar, a buffet stocked with shrimp and
couches, a big television. It was open late
into the night.
"Legislators were a long way from home, with little to do," Bryant
"Coal lobbyists would
feed them, befriend them. They'd talk about
anything but legislation."
This subtle form of influence-shaping surprised Bryant. The Coal Suite
helped him realize how
money helped build relationships, which led to
access to legislators and more.
Even though the Coal Suite no longer exists, lobbyists still curry
favor with legislators
through meals and receptions, Bryant
"It's a subtle form of influence-buying," he
"It's hard to vote
against your friends."
Knowing who spends the most
The West Virginia Ethics Law required lobbyists to
disclose their employers and how much they
spent on meals, gifts and
campaign contributions. But this is just the tip of the iceberg
In Maryland, lobbyists must disclose almost every dollar they spend:
"We want to know who spends the most to get the very best," said John
O'Donnell, director of
the Maryland State Ethics Commission for
21 years. "We want to capture the total effort."
In 1999, Maryland lobbyists spent more than $23 million. If they
reported only what the West
Virginia law requires, they would
have only reported $757,356 in spending.
The West Virginia Ethics Commission doesn't have the power to
"It's a fundamental problem," Chambers
"Unless somebody makes a
formal complaint, they
have no investigating authority. They don't have
the support to be more aggressive."
Stronger disclosure laws
In May, the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Public Integrity rated
disclosure laws for all 50
states. Disclosure laws require legislators
to tell the public about their personal finances
and other things that
could cause a conflict of interest for them.
West Virginia ranked 43rd. Its disclosure laws do not require any
information about the
finances of immediate family members, for
The Ethics Commission also has no way of ensuring that the
information provided by legislators
is accurate or complete.
CPI ranked Washington state first in its disclosure laws. Washington
disclosure of financial interests for legislators and
their families, according to Doug Ellis
with the Washington Public
Disclosure Commission. His commission can also initiate action
something appears to be missing or wrong with a filing.
"The public needs proof that officials are acting in the public
interest and not for private
Campaign finance reform: 'the ultimate solution'
In addition to better disclosure, West Virginia Citizen Action Group is
calling for reform of
the campaign finance system. As campaigns become
more expensive, candidates become more
beholden to contributors, the
The cost of a legislative campaign keeps rising, said Norm Steenstra,
director of CAG. Its
analysis of 1998 data showed that between 1996 and
1998, legislative campaign spending grew 10
times as fast as the cost
CAG is calling for "Clean Money" legislation, which has already passed
in Maine, Vermont,
Arizona and New Mexico. Candidates would qualify for
public funding if they refuse
contributions from special interests.
"It's the ultimate solution," Steenstra
"It's the reform that
enables all other reforms."
To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or phone 357-4323.