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W.Va. Ethics Commission postpones franking opinion

By Phil Kabler, Staff writer
CHIP ELLIS | Gazette
The newly reconstituted West Virginia Ethics Commission holds its first meeting Thursday morning. Interim executive director Rebecca Stepto (right) introduced herself to the commission. Stepto was hired after the commission fired former executive director Joan Parker last month.
CHIP ELLIS | Gazette The newly empaneled West Virginia Ethics Commission elected Bob Wolfe, a former Logan County school board member, as its chairman at its first meeting Thursday.

In its first meeting, the newly configured West Virginia Ethics Commission borrowed a page from the old Ethics Commission on Thursday and, for a second straight month, postponed action on an advisory opinion upholding the Legislature’s franking privilege.

In June, the old commission delayed a vote on a request for an advisory opinion from a legislator asking if the Ethics Act permits sending letters to constituents at the Legislature’s expense. That delay was to allow time to research any legislative rules or policies on franking, as well as any pertinent state election laws.

On Thursday, the new nine-member panel again postponed a vote, after Commissioner Mike Greer requested an amendment barring legislators from using political party mailing lists to send out constituent letters.

Greer said he believes targeting letters to likely party voters constitutes using public funds to campaign, even if the letters themselves do not contain any campaign or political rhetoric.

“You can’t use the prestige of your public office for personal gain,” he said. “To me, that’s what this is all about.”

It was not clear if Greer’s amendment will prevail at the commission’s August meeting. Commission Chairman Bob Wolfe, for one, raised concerns that the commission would be reaching the point of micromanaging the Legislature.

Commissioner Betty Ireland said she supports the amendment but had issues about how it is to be enforced.

“I’m worried about who’s going to be the arbiter of this,” she said.

Greer said he realizes that the costs of sending constituent letters is nominal, compared to major political campaigns.

“The headlines this morning talked about the [U.S.] Senate candidates raising millions of dollars. We’re talking about hundreds [of dollars] to send out a thousand letters,” he said.

The latest draft of the advisory opinion concludes that the long-standing practice of legislators using legislative resources to send unsolicited letters to constituents is not a violation of the Ethics Act, so long as the letters do not contain any political slogans or statements, or encourage the recipient to vote for or against any candidate.

It also notes that the Legislature is free to set stricter standards for constituent letters by legislative rule.

Thursday’s meeting was the first for the new panel, under legislation passed in March that replaced the 12-member Ethics Commission with a nine-member panel. While the commission is new, most of the commissioners are not, with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin appointing seven members of the old commission to the new panel.

Also during Thursday’s meeting:

n Interim executive director Rebecca Stepto introduced herself to the commission. Stepto, who had been a contract attorney for the commission, was hired June 16 to replace Joan Parker, who was fired without explanation on June 5.

Stepto said she had worked in journalism and public relations, including a stint at the Charleston Daily Mail, before entering law school at West Virginia University in 1989.

“I’m used to being on the other side of the camera and the reporting notebook,” she commented.

As a lawyer, Stepto said, she worked for law offices in Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and Huntington before returning to Charleston.

n Stepto said she is looking at ways to cut commission expenses, after the agency exceeded its budget in the 2013-14 fiscal year, primarily because it had to hire contract attorneys to deal with backlogs of ethics complaints and requests for advisory opinions.

n Commissioners elected Wolfe, a former Logan County school board member, as chairman by acclamation. Tomblin had selected Wolfe to serve as the interim chairman at the new commission’s first meeting.

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


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