New legislation making so-called public service volunteers subject to some provisions of the state Ethics Act could create headaches for the Ethics Commission, commissioners complained Thursday.
“I can see this being another trinkets issue, where it’s dropped on us to figure out what the law means,” said Commissioner Betty Ireland, a former secretary of state, referring to the vaguely written 2015 law limiting public officials from putting their names or images on various items, including “trinkets” such as pens, pencils, magnets and keychains.
Commissioners spent multiple meetings in 2015 and 2016 trying to hash out just exactly what that law is intended to prohibit.
“Are we going to have to decide who is a public servant volunteer?” Ireland asked. “This is very broad, and I can see — particularly around election time — claims that so-and-so is a public service volunteer.”
Ethics Commission executive director Rebecca Stepto said the legislation defines the position as persons who act on behalf of public officials, without compensation, and are vested with “powers, privileges and authorities” usually reserved for public officials.
That led Commissioner Lynn Davis to comment, “Will we also have to define what a privilege is? Is it a parking space or a key card?”
Under the new law, requested by Gov. Jim Justice, public service volunteers are subject to most of the provisions of the Ethics Act, including its prohibition on using public office for private gain.
Stepto noted, however, that the law does not require those individuals to file financial disclosures with the Ethics Commission — as was widely presumed.
During the legislative session, the legislation (House Bill 4424) was nicknamed “the Bray Cary bill,” after the former television executive who is serving as a “citizen volunteer/special assistant” to Justice. In the midst of the controversy over his service, Cary submitted a financial disclosure to the commission, even though he, like other top Justice aides, is not required to do so.
Commission chairman Robert Wolfe questioned if a legislator sought advice on legislation from a friend or colleague, whether that would qualify that person as being a public service volunteer.
“This is such a broad thing … We’re going to get inundated with people who have questions,” he said.
Stepto said she and other commission attorneys attended multiple legislative committee meetings where the bill was debated but, as with the trinkets bill, were never called on to comment on the pending legislation.
Also during Thursday’s commission meeting:
n Commissioners granted a contract exemption to the Kanawha County Commission, allowing the commission to continue to advertise in, and subscribe to the Charleston Gazette-Mail even though Commissioner Ben Salango has a small ownership interest in the new company that purchased the newspaper last week.
Ethics commissioners were advised that Salango’s ownership interest in the new company does not reach the 5 percent threshold that constitutes an ownership interest under the Ethics Act.
Likewise, he falls below the same 5 percent threshold in a state law that prohibits county officials from having a private interest in county government contracts.
However, commissioners determined that Salango must recuse himself from any discussions or votes on any county business involving the Gazette-Mail.
The County Commission’s 2018-19 budget projects that the county will spend nearly $275,000 for advertising in the Gazette-Mail, with about $260,000 of that amount for legal ads that the county is required by law to publish.
The remainder is budgeted for display ads to promote such events as county cleanup day. The county has also budgeted less than $1,000 for Gazette-Mail subscriptions, according to the contract exemption.
Since the primary owner of the Gazette-Mail is HD Media Co. of Huntington, Ireland said the county should seek a separate contract exemption should it ever have occasion to advertise in any HD Media publications, including The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington.
“For the purpose of complete transparency, we would be happy to do that,” Andrew Gunnoe, deputy county manager, told the commission.
n Stepto notified commissioners that retired Court of Claims Clerk Cheryle Hall did not appeal the commission’s ruling against her in February, and has paid a $1,500 fine and $4,668 in costs.
Commissioners found the longtime clerk guilty of ethics violations for allowing a court employee to draw pay for time not worked.
Hall did not dispute any of the facts raised in the complaint, but said she acted out of empathy for the worker, a single mother who was recovering from injuries suffered in a severe car accident, and who was struggling to get by on a $22,000 salary. Hall said the employee was in the process of making up the work hours when Legislative Manager Aaron Allred intervened and fired the woman.
n After meeting in executive session, the commission voted to refer a potential criminal violation to the appropriate county prosecutor. Under the Ethics Act, the specifics of the complaint are confidential.