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Ethics Commission delays action on legislative mailings

By Phil Kabler, Staff writer

State Ethics Commissioners postponed action Thursday on an advisory opinion that would uphold the longstanding tradition of legislative franking on constituent letters, in order to more clearly define when those letters cross the line into campaign materials.

As drafted, the advisory opinion would uphold the practice of legislators using legislative resources to send letters to constituents, so long as the letters do not contain campaign materials, campaign slogans, political party propaganda, or self-promotion.

Several commissioners, however, wanted to more clearly define the difference between providing constituents with information about legislative actions, and using public resources to campaign for reelection.

“This is a sticky wicket,” noted Commissioner Betty Ireland. “Having served as secretary of state, you get questions all the time.

“I’m not sure there’s any way to nail these definitions down so it’s totally clear to the public,” she said.

Ireland suggested that the advisory opinion be amended to advise legislators to also seek guidance from the secretary of state’s office to verify that nothing in the constituent letters violates state election law.

“The overall umbrella is, as long as you follow these rules, it’s not a violation of the Ethics Act,” she said.

According to Executive Director Joan Parker -- who was fired later in the meeting -- the request for an advisory opinion comes from a legislator who serves in a single-member district, who did not send out constituent letters prior to the May primary but would like to send out between 2,000 and 10,000 letters on legislative letterhead, using a mailing list provided by his political party.

Commissioner Kemp Morton noted that the draft letter submitted by the legislator cites accomplishments of the Legislature, along with the statement, “We’ve got more work to do,” which he suggested could be construed as a campaign slogan.

“Isn’t he asking to be returned to office?” asked Morton, who suggested the Ethics Commission might want to review each constituent letter individually.

“Do we really want to be the gatekeeper?” Commissioner Douglas Sutton responded. “I don’t think we can micromanage what the House and the Senate sends out.”

Meanwhile, Commissioner Robert Wolfe said the opinion should not be overly restrictive.

“You’re limiting a legislator’s right to communicate with his constituents,” he said.

Commissioner Jack Buckalew, a former state senator, took the other tack, saying he would like to see state-funded constituent letters banned entirely.

“What’s wrong with them spending their own money to produce these things?” he asked.

Commissioner Mike Greer said the Legislature should come up with its own rules and regulations for mailing constituent letters, and have the House and Senate clerks enforce those standards.

Ultimately, commissioners adopted a motion by Wolfe to table the advisory opinion until the commission’s July meeting, to let commission staff conduct additional research on any election laws or legislative rules that would provide additional guidelines on franking letters to constituents.

The request comes as Republican political operative Rob Cornelius has targeted about a dozen House Democrats for sending letters to constituents prior to the May primary, including threatening to file ethics complaints against the delegates.

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


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