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Statehouse Beat: ‘Mailgate’ ends with a whimper

“Mailgate” ended with a whimper last week, as the state Ethics Commission ruled that legislators may send letters to constituents during election cycles using the legislative franking privilege — with the proviso that they may not use targeted lists of likely voters within 60 days of an election.

As Commission Chairman Bob Wolfe noted, the advisory opinion is prospective, and cannot be applied to any complaints filed during the May primary election cycle.

That GOP operative Rob Cornelius has indicated he still intends to file additional complaints against Democrat incumbents (but apparently only against those who have close races in the fall) for franking is further proof he is abusing the Ethics Act in order to have fodder for political attack ads.

The Ethics Act has provisions for dealing with individuals who file false or unsubstantiated complaints, up to pursing legal action against the complainant. It also gives the Ethics Commission authority to refuse to accept complaints from individuals who have abused the process by filing one or more unsubstantiated complaints.

I asked interim Executive Director Rebecca Stepto to tell me how many complaints Cornelius has pending — arguing that while the content of the complaints are confidential, the total number of complaints filed by any one

individual should not be. She declined.

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Actually, there’s a strong case that any complaint filed by Cornelius is null and void, since 6B-2-4(a) of the Ethics Act states that “no political party, or officer, employee or agent of a political party acting in his or her official capacity” may file an Ethics complaint.

(Obviously, the authors of the Ethics Act had concerns about the Ethics process being abused for political purposes.)

I’m advised the commission is aware of the provision in the law, but to date, has given Cornelius a pass since he mails the complaints from his residence in Parkersburg.

By the same logic, if I call the commission from my home phone, they should assume I’m a private citizen and not a reporter working on an article.

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When legislation was passed in 2005 creating the commission’s Probable Cause Review Board, the bill’s author, current Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, modeled the process after the grand jury system. As such, it had a provision that barred complainants from announcing they had filed an Ethics complaint, or discussing the complaint while it was before the review board.

At the time, a somewhat unusual coalition of Republican legislators and some in the media opposed the provision, calling it a “gag order.”

Since the bill passed in a special session called prior to the 2005 regular session, legislators came back and removed the gag order provision, replacing it with language authorizing the commission to require a complainant to be bound to confidentiality if circumstances warrant.

As noted before, all Cornelius is looking for are headlines saying, “Ethics complaint filed against Delegate (so-and-so).” The original provision would have prevented that from happening.

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Speaking of the GOP, what a rough week for state party Chairman Conrad Lucas: The collapse of “mailgate”; Delegate Suzette Raines, R-Kanawha, announcing she is withdrawing from the 35th House race; and the abrupt cancellation of the 2014 “Victory Party” after it was discovered the keynote speaker is a convicted felon.

How is it no one vetted Dinesh D’Souza to find he had pleaded guilty to felony charges of making illegal campaign contributions? Do they not have Google at GOP headquarters?

I also found it interesting that Raines indicated she was dropping out because the Democratic Party was attacking her.

Unless they stole her unfiled financial disclosure documents out of her mailbox (which would be impossible since no one seems to know where she lives), I fail to see how this was any sort of partisan attack.

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Finally, I was sorry to learn of the death of West Virginia University journalism professor emeritus Bob Ours.

I did some graduate assistant work for Dr. Ours back in the day, primarily helping him research the “College Football Almanac,” one of several books on college football he published.

One of my assignments was to research about a dozen disputed games from the 1900s to 1920s; for instance, games that one school listed as an exhibition while the other counted as a regular-season game, or instances when schools had different scores for the same game, etc.

In the pre-Internet era, that meant going through microfilm newspaper archives to find the actual game coverage. (At the time, WVU libraries had an extensive microfilm collection for all major U.S. papers and all West Virginia dailies.)

Speaking of WVU, congratulations to the staff of The Daily Athenaeum, ranked as the eighth-best college newspaper in the country by the Princeton Review. Evidently, my 4 1/2 years working at the DA did not permanently damage the paper’s reputation.

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


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