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Ethics panel needs more money as filings increase

By Phil Kabler, Staff writer
LAWRENCE PIERCE | Gazette file photo

An explosion of complaint filings is forcing the West Virginia Ethics Commission to ask the Department of Administration for more money in the 2015-16 state budget, the commissions interim executive director said Thursday.

The number of complaints has nearly quadrupled in the past three years, going from 38 complaints in the 2010-11 fiscal year, to 101 complaints in 2011-12, 107 complaints in 2012-13, up to 147 complaints in fiscal 2013-14, which ended June 30, Rebecca Stepto said.

“Last fiscal year, we received more complaints than in the first nine years of the commission’s history combined,” Stepto told members of the Ethics Commission. The commission was formed in 1989.

Reviewing complaints is a labor-intensive process, beginning with presenting them to the three-member Probable Cause Review Board to determine if there is valid evidence of a violation of the Ethics Act.

Complaints advanced by the board are then investigated, generally using private investigators and attorneys under contract to the Ethics Commission.

Like many state agencies, the Ethics Commission has had its budget cut by 7.5 percent each of the past two years, and currently has an annual budget of just over $708,000.

Ethics is one of numerous boards, commissions, agencies and divisions under the Department of Administration, which will submit its 2015-16 funding requests to the Governor’s Office this month.

Also during the commission’s meeting Thursday:

| Commissioners met in extended executive session to discuss personnel matters. At the conclusion of the session, they voted to advertise for the position of executive director. Interim executive director Stepto, who was hired in that capacity June 16, said Thursday she has not decided if she will apply for the permanent position.

| The panel discussed possible 2015 legislation to require legislators, statewide elected officials, members of the Supreme Court and candidates for those offices, to file their annual financial disclosure forms electronically.

Commissioner Betty Ireland, who instituted electronic filing of campaign financial disclosure forms while she was secretary of state, said the legislation should have a hardship exemption, for people living in areas with no or limited Internet service.

Commissioners also discussed proposed legislation that would allow public officials and employees to complete a required one-hour ethics training seminar by watching a video presentation.

| Commissioners approved a contract exemption to allow the Wyoming County Health Department to contract with a local physicians group for services, even though the chairwoman of the Health Department lives with the group’s senior physician.

Commissioners concluded it would otherwise be a hardship, since the only other physicians group in the county opted not to renew its contract with the Health Department, and the department determined it would be too costly to contract with physicians groups out of Charleston.

Commissioner Mike Greer voted against the exemption.

“I think there is another option, and that option is for the chairwoman of the Board of Health to resign,” he said. “It seems to me this is just another example of small-town, rural politics.”

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.


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