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As scandals go, ‘Mailgate’ continues to deliver

In early June I wrote about the “Mailgate” scandal in the West Virginia House of Delegates concerning allegations reported in the press that certain Democrats in the Legislature had used, or some say abused, their franking privileges to electioneer.                Franking is a time honored tradition in which public funds are available to enable legislators to communicate with constituents and to provide information. However, there were questions raised regarding the timing and sheer volume of the mailings.  Additionally, based on his research through documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, West Virginia GOP consultant Rob Cornelius believes that the mailings were targeted by Democrats in the Legislature to constituents that are Democrats and that GOP voters were systematically excluded. According to WVGOP chair Conrad Lucas, this is both unethical and illegal.

Recently there has been a strange new twist to the story. There was a request for an opinion regarding Mailgate made to the West Virginia Ethics Commission. At the proceedings something happened that has produced yet a new allegation regarding a violation of ethics law. A story within a story, resulting in this headline a couple of weeks ago in the Charleston Daily Mail: “Ethics commissioner may have violated ethics act.”

According to the article written by Capitol Bureau Chief David Boucher, “The commission is required to keep the name of the subject of the request confidential until it issues an opinion, according to the Ethics Act.” This makes sense to me as it avoids political considerations and background noise as well as potential conflicts of interest as the commission can focus on the issue before them without any background noise. The article quotes from the Ethics Act: “No present or former public official or employee may knowingly and improperly disclose any confidential information acquired by him or her in the course of his or her official duties nor use such information to further his or her personal interests or the interests of another person.”

With all of that said, it was local resident and current member of the Ethics Commission Terry Walker who revealed the name of the requestor at a recent meeting.                      In 2012 Walker was appointed to the Ethics Commission by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and in late June was reappointed. According to the article, in his presentation of the question to the commission, Walker revealed the name of the requestor. According to the article, after some obvious discomfort on the part of the commissioners hearing the request he said “excuse me” and then went on to present the question.

The commission delayed taking action on the question and Walker stated after the meeting “I hated to do that. That was my error.” I give him credit for standing up and taking responsibility.

However, Rebecca Steptoe, the commission’s newly appointed executive director gave a speech during the meeting regarding “the commission’s duty to maintain confidentiality on advisory opinion requests and complaints.” After the meeting, she characterized Walker’s self-described error as “a slip of the tongue” and from what I know of Terry Walker I think she’s right. However, she’s also right when she added that it shouldn’t have happened.

Cornelius is also right when he commented, “Whether intentional or not, Terry Walker has a duty to obey the laws of this state and the rules of this Ethics Commission.” For his part, Cornelius has subsequently filed a complaint with the commission regarding the incident and has called for Walker’s immediate removal.

According to the Ethics Act, anyone violating the confidential information guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a fine of up to $1000 and could face up to six months in jail if convicted.

According to Steptoe, the commission can levy fines or issue a cease and desist order and, if it believes a crime has been committed, refer the matter to a prosecutor.

Whether or not that happens, there is an aspect of this case that makes it particularly awkward. As it turns out, the requestor whose name Walker revealed during the proceedings is Delegate Eric Householder. For those who don’t know the background, Walker was appointed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin in late 2009 to serve out the remainder of Delegate Bob Tabb’s term in the Legislature. Tabb resigned his seat in the House to take the post of deputy commissioner of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. Walker ran for re-election in 2010 and was defeated by none other than Householder.

So now you know “the rest of the story.” We have an alleged ethics violation that happened during the hearing for another alleged ethics violation, with a slip of the tongue by one party against his former political opponent.

There will be due process on this incident starting with a three-person Probable Cause Review Board. If they determine that a possible violation has occurred it will refer the case to the full commission that meets next on Aug. 7. I hope the original request for the opinion on Mailgate doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. Stay tuned.

— Elliot Simon writes from Harpers Ferry

 

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