Ethics ruling sets limits for citizen legislators

A recent decision by the West Virginia Ethics Commission that concluded it would not be proper for House Speaker Richard Thompson, D-Wayne, to work for the West Virginia Education Association as its attorney has opened up a necessary debate on the potential conflicts that confront all 134 members of this state’s citizen legislature.

Most every one of them will have a special interest in some of the issues that are debated and resolved during the annual 60-day legislative session. One of the key members of Thompson’s leadership team in the House is Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, who is a vice president of the United Mine Workers of America. He was a key participant during the recent legislative session on a mine safety bill and made an emotional floor speech urging other members to vote for the legislation.

Meanwhile, Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, is executive director of the West Virginia State Medical Association and previously worked for the state Chamber of Commerce while he was a member of the House of Delegates.

Jenkins told a newspaper reporter recently that he believes it makes sense for the Ethics Commission — an agency created by the Legislature to resolve these sensitive issues — to treat the House speaker and the president of the state Senate differently. He noted that he has made no secret of his job but he contends the two most powerful members of the Legislature — Thompson and Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall — must be treated differently than the other 132 members.

He said he asked the Ethics Commission to advise him before he took his job with the Medical Association and that he takes an unpaid leave of absence during the 60-day legislative session.

Delegate Amanda Pasdon, R-Monongalia, works for the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. She said her role is to help plan the annual meeting and coordinate annual functions and that she is not “related to the lobbying function or the policy making function in any way.”

The price we pay for a citizen legislature is that all 134 members have special interests and biases. On the last night of the 2012 legislative session, some attorneys, who are members of the House of Delegates and a state senator who happens to be a doctor, engaged in a heated discussion in the back of the Senate chamber on disputes about two bills that were designed to allow children to get hearing aids and avoid traumatic head injuries. They were not able to reach any compromise and both bills died.

As the leaders of the two chambers, Thompson and Kessler earn more than rank-and-file legislators and have more influence with the other members than a back-row delegate or senator. So perhaps they should expect that they will be subjected to a higher standard.

But these two leaders, who are both attorneys, serve in a part-time citizen legislature and have to work in the private sector as well. The current ethics commission, which was created by the legislature, has ruled that the House speaker cannot be employed by one of the most powerful, influential lobbying organizations in the state. And Thompson has accepted that decision.

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