Statehouse Beat: Who can Speaker Armstead work for?

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Ethics Commissioners wanted another month to sort out House Speaker Tim Armstead’s request for an advisory opinion as to whether he can go to work for a law firm — sources confirm its Spilman, Thomas & Battle — that employs legislative lobbyists.

Commissioners have one precedent, and one non-precedent, to consider.

The precedent: In 2012, the commission made it clear it would be a violation of the Ethics Act for then-Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, to work as a contract attorney for the West Virginia Education Association.

That decision did not mince words: “Permitting a presiding officer to accept the equivalent of a general counsel position with the [WVEA] may have a chilling effect on free and full discussion in legislative sessions. Additionally, the public may perceive that the association has hired the requester because of his unique ability to influence legislation. Further, other associations that do not employ a high-ranking member of the Legislature may believe that they are at a disadvantage in the legislative process.”

The Spilman lobbying division includes prominent lawyer/lobbyists such as Mike Basile and Jane Cline, and clients include Mylan, Aetna, Southwestern Energy, the Independent Oil and Gas Association and the American Insurance Association, among many others.

What’s really telling is their listed legislative topics, including banking, finance, budget issues, financial services, health care, legal services, Medicaid, property issues, regulations, pensions/retirement, taxation, workers’ compensation, chemical industry, economic development, fantasy sports, fireworks, pharmaceuticals, satellite TV and telecommunications.

As a lawyer for the now-dissolved West Virginia legal division for Columbia Pipeline Group, Armstead, R-Kanawha, recused himself from votes on a variety of bills related to the natural gas industry. Using that standard, as a Spilman attorney, he’d be hard-pressed to vote on much of anything.

Of course, the non-precedent is Bob Kiss’ employment as an attorney for Bowles Rice McDavid Graf and Love from 2003 to 2007 while serving as speaker of the House. Unlike Armstead, Kiss did not request an advisory opinion on the ethicalness of the arrangement, and apparently, no one filed an ethics complaint challenging it.

(We in the Statehouse press corps dropped the ball on the matter, focusing more on Kiss’ residency — he was representing Raleigh County, but was primarily living and working in Charleston — than on potential conflicts as a member of a law firm that employs legislative lobbyists.)

At the time the Ethics Commission blocked his employment by WVEA, Thompson complained that the decision could effectively prevent the House speaker or Senate president from having any outside employment — a tough standard for members of a part-time citizen legislature.

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Speaking of looking bad, Gov.-elect Jim Justice’s decision to hold the inaugural ball at The Greenbrier is raising concerns.

While, as in years past, the event itself will be operated by an inaugural committee and entirely funded through contributions and ticket sales, critics note that guests to the ball will fill rooms at Justice’s hotel, on a day when one would otherwise expect less-than-stellar occupancy rates.

As one noted, it would be as if President-elect Donald Trump opted to stage one of his inaugural galas at the Trump International Hotel in Washington — and who knows, that might actually be within the realm of possibility.

Meanwhile, while the Justice transition may be relatively unconventional, one reality carries on from one governor to the next — the number of current or former legislators who will accept administrative positions with the new governor.

Arguably, legislative experience is valuable for executive branch administrators, but it also allows those ex-legislators to significantly boost their state pensions.

That’s because the final average salary is calculated on the highest 36 consecutive months of the last 15 years of employment. Thus, a legislator with 16 years service who lands a department head position at $95,000 for four years can boost his or her state pension from about $8,000 a year to about $38,000 a year.

Word is at least two legislators are in line for ranking positions in the Justice administration.

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Longtime Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, who opted not to run for re-election, is convalescing at home after a serious tractor accident while working on his property on Nov. 13 — his birthday — which resulted in broken ribs, lost toes and multiple surgeries.

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Finally, if talk radio is one of the contributing factors to the dumbing down of the American electorate, then the podcast I was advised to listen to last week could be a prime example.

The talk jock was Tom Roten, whom I think is out of Huntington, and the guest was West Virginia Family Policy Council president Allen Whitt. At one point, the discussion was about presumptive Senate President-elect Mitch Carmichael accepting what Whitt called the “LGBT man of the year” award.

(The actual event he was referencing was the Opportunity West Virginia luncheon in October when Carmichael and Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, were honored for preventing the use of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act bill “as a license to discriminate.” Opportunity West Virginia is a coalition of businesspeople whose mandates are to attract and keep businesses in the state, and to diversify the workforce by encouraging workplace non-discrimination policies, not a LGBT organization.)

Whitt went on to say unnamed “consultants in downtown Charleston” were surprised by Carmichael for “openly receiving that award, going and sitting and speaking with that group, being thrilled ...

Which prompted Roten to ask, “Is he openly gay?” — which I assume to Roten’s listeners constitutes an insult.

Afterward, I was talking with Carmichael about the broadcast, and told him I presume that if he had won an award from the NAACP, Roten would have questioned whether he was black.

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

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