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Editorial: Please, no self-dealing elected officials

Wisely, West Virginia’s conflict-of-interest law (state code 61-10-15) makes it a crime for local government officials to arrange public contracts that grant taxpayer funds to themselves in any way, “directly or indirectly.” Violators can be jailed up to a year, fined up to $500, and removed from office.

On the primary election ballot, voters chose 121 little-known nonpartisan officials: supervisors of 14 conservation districts. They’re farmers or gardeners who mostly help landowners get grants to prevent soil erosion or flooding.

Statehouse correspondent Phil Kabler revealed that some of these supervisors want tax-funded grants for their own farms. During the 2014 legislative session, they backed a bill directing the state Ethics Commission to grant them exemptions from the conflict law. When the bill failed, lawmakers passed a last-minute compromise letting supervisors apply for farm grants, then letting fellow supervisors decide whether they deserve them.

“Chances of approval? Presumably high,” Kabler wrote.

This sounds like a method to evade the conflict-of-interest law. Rules for the new plan currently are subject to a public comment period. We don’t know whether it’s possible to challenge the law change — but we hope someone tries.

If elected conservation supervisors can use tax money to benefit themselves and their relatives, why shouldn’t every local government official be allowed to do likewise? “Equal Justice Under Law” is the motto of America’s court system. It won’t be equal if some officials can funnel public funds to themselves, but others can be prosecuted for such self-dealing. If self-dealing is a crime for some, it should be a crime for all.

Kabler also revealed that some of the supervisors reap $60 daily pay, 51-cents-a-mile driving allowance, $30 daily meal costs and lodging expense for their minor, part-time, erosion-control jobs. Supervisor Carl Mullins of McDowell County got $18,072 last year and $19,208 the year before. Several others topped $10,000.

We hope a legislative committee reexamines this situation. Does West Virginia really need elected farmers and gardeners to push grants for other landowners — and now for themselves? Why couldn’t a few clerks in the state Agriculture Department do this task?

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