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Statehouse Beat: Ethics Commission again target of lawmakers

One could argue members of the Ethics Commission did not act ethically when they fired Executive Director Joan Parker on Thursday, but they sure acted pragmatically.

From the very beginnings of the 25-year history of the commission, the Legislature has a history of vindictiveness when crossed by the Ethics Commission.

In one of its earliest advisory opinions, the Ethics Commission ruled in 1989 that legislators could not accept free golf outings or whitewater rafting trips while attending interim meetings at Glade Springs resort. The next session, the Legislature responded by revoking the commission’s ability to initiate investigations of alleged ethics violations.

A year later, after the Ethics Commission determined that legislators and other state officials could not keep hotel and airline bonuses points accumulated while on state-paid legislative/state business for personal use, the Legislature got even by watering down a bill to restore the commission’s investigatory powers — to the point where all the bill ultimately contained was a provision to allow legislators to keep their hotel points.

Four months ago, the Ethics Commission instructed Parker to lobby against a blatantly unethical bill to exempt county conservation district officers from the Ethics Act’s prohibition on using public office for private gain, so they could direct conservation grants to their own farms.

The bill, in fact, was intended to overturn a 2013 Ethics Commission advisory opinion that barred the arrangement as unethical.

Parker prevailed — the bill that passed, rather than exempt the county officers from the Ethics Act, requires that any grants that will personally benefit them be handled at the state level — but not before invoking the wrath of one of the bill’s sponsors, Senate Government Organization Chairman Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson.

In retaliation, Snyder’s committee took a House bill intended to simplify appointments to the 12-member Ethics Commission, and amended it to shrink the commission to seven members, and absurdly requiring that an ex-lobbyist serve on the panel.

(A House-Senate conference committee compromised with a nine-member, lobbyist-free Ethics Commission; Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has until July 1 to appoint members to the reconstituted panel.)

The Senate Confirmations Committee also grilled new commission appointees to the commission with a series of pointed questions about Parker. While the Senate confirmed all the nominees to the commission, the nominees apparently got the message.

One of the commissioners who underwent the Senate grilling, Douglas Sutton, said Thursday of the commission’s firing of Parker, “I think this was the right decision at the right time for the benefit of the commission.”

(Snyder was quoted as saying his beef with Parker was over not being able to find minutes on the commission’s website. Right. He failed to mention the heated dust-ups he had with Parker over the bill.)

Certainly, had Parker stayed on as the face of the Ethics Commission, there’s no reason to think the Senate’s vindictiveness would have ended in the 2015 legislative session.

With the legislation reconstituting the Ethics Commission, all current commissioners who get appointed to the new commission will have to go through Senate confirmations again. 2015 will be another tough year for the state budget, and after the uproar over cuts to family resources and social services programs this year, legislators may be less inclined to support further across-the-board budget cuts next session.

Instead, they may single out individual boards and agencies for more severe funding cuts, and probably would not hesitate to cut the Ethic Commission’s already-shoestring $708,000 budget.

So, getting rid of Parker as the final act of the current Ethics Commission wasn’t personal, it was just a matter of expediency.

That was made clear by the fact that the commissioners stood and applauded Parker before going into closed session to discuss her termination, and Commissioner Terry Walker gave her a big hug, shortly after casting one of the five “yes” votes for her firing.

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Finally, it was disappointing that Commission Chairman Kemp Morton, who did not chair Thursday’s meeting because he was participating by telephone, not only made the motion to fire Parker, but essentially imposed a gag order on the other commissioners not to discuss anything that occurred in the hour-plus closed session, saying in his view, everything discussed was confidential.

Nothing in the state open meetings law prohibits participants from discussing what occurred in a closed session, unless the matter discussed was itself confidential.

That provides further evidence that Parker was fired not for failing to meet performance standards or for insolence, but because of politics.

It’s also somewhat ironic that it was Morton, as I recall, who was particularly adamant in the February meeting that Parker lobby against the conservation district officers’ ethics law exemption, pointing out that the commission had just issued an advisory opinion saying they could not receive conservation grants for their own farms.

“We’ve already taken a position. We told them no,” Morton said at the time.

Parker could well be the first state agency head fired for doing her job too well.

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


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