By STEVE COHEN

CHARLESTON -- It's a new day for West Virginia. The state Ethics Commission has a new director.

Against the backdrop of pay-to-play antics in the governors' offices of Illinois and New Mexico, the Mountain State can set a tone for conduct in public office as pure as the driven snow.

"I think all people want to see an improvement in ethics in West Virginia," Theresa Kirk told the Charleston Gazette about her ascendancy to the commission's corner office. To prove she is more workhorse than show horse, Kirk assured anxious citizens that a plaque or mementos recognizing her predecessor will certainly not involve a public expenditure of up to $100 from her annual budget, consistent with guidelines recently approved by the ethics enforcers.

If only Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration had been served by so cogent a check on the potential abuse of power. Selling an appointment to the U.S. Senate would be far-fetch ed fantasy.

Kirk told the Gazette she wants to "look at ways of strengthening" West Virginia's ethics laws. Crusader that she may be, perhaps Kirk could be the poster child for reform of the attorney general's hiring practices.

Darrell McGraw has made a practice of seemingly rewarding campaign contributors to no-bid contracts from which they reap millions of dollars in legal fees at public expense. Here is Kirk's chance to march up to the state Capitol with Sunshine legislation that would hold the attorney general accountable for his hires. Have McGraw explain why he needs to go outside his taxpayer-funded office of 200 legal specialists to file a lawsuit on behalf of the state.

Have McGraw explain why these lawyers are his preference. What special expertise do they bring to court that his large office, or other private attorneys for that matter, do not have? Right now all we know is that McGraw's generous chums are seemingly being rewarded for bankrolling his political machine.

Such a model for good government could catapult Kirk and our leaders in Charleston to hero status as watchdogs of the public purse. West Virginia's reputation would transform from one where the old boy network is replaced by transparency and the bright light of public scrutiny.

So congratulations, Ms. Kirk, on holding rank as Ethics Czar in West Virginia. Your commission's personnel committee chose you from a field of more than 20 candidates to uphold the highest standards of public trust.

Now that we have a $100 ceiling on vendor payments to the trophy engraver, let's take on a really serious challenge like the scandal in Darrell McGraw's office.

Cohen is executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

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