THEIR VIEW: Lawmakers and conflicts of interest.
By HOPPY KERCHEVAL MORGANTOWN -- The West Virginia Ethics Commission decided last week that House Speaker Rick Thompson would have an "inescapable conflict" if he had taken a position as legal counsel for the West Virginia Education Association teacher's union. At first blush, this might seem like a slam dunk. Thompson is in a position to determine the success or failure of legislation and the WVEA lobbies lawmakers for pay raises and on other issues. Thompson pledged to keep the two duties separate, but it would have been a tricky proposition given that he would have responsibilities to his employer and to the public trust in his position as Speaker. So, Thompson won't take the job with the WVEA. "I certainly would not do anything wrong, but if that's their decision, that's their decision and I will abide by it," Thompson told the Gazette. It must be noted, however, that the West Virginia Legislature is filled with potential conflicts of interest. As a part-time body, most lawmakers have other jobs. They are lawyers, bankers, school teachers, insurance salesmen, businessmen, doctors and nurses. Here are a few more specific examples: Senator Evan Jenkins (D-Cabell) is executive director of the West Virginia Medical Association. House of Delegates Majority Whip Mike Caputo (D-Marion) is a vice-president with the United Mine Workers of America. Would Thompson's position with WVEA have been any different? The Ethics Commission apparently believes Thompson's situation is unique because he is a presiding officer. It's likely that the commission will craft its final opinion so that it impacts only lawmakers in the highest leadership positions, such as the Speaker and Senate President. But let's say the commission had signed off on Thompson working for the WVEA, or Thompson had simply not sought a ruling. The press—and thus the public—would have quickly learned about it. That kind of news travels fast. As a result, Thompson may have been subject to more public scrutiny on education issues. Perhaps a bigger risk of malfeasance in the Legislature exists with conflicts of interest that are not reviewed by the Ethics Commission and which the public never hears about. Politicians are human, and as such some are tempted to use their position in ways that benefit themselves or their families. The bright light of disclosure has a sanitizing effect. We can expect and hope that public officials act in an ethical manner, but public scrutiny helps keep them honest. But first, the public has to know about them. Ultimately, it's better for the public trust in West Virginia that Speaker Thompson does not work for the WVEA, but most of the potential conflicts are not as blatant as Thompson's would have been. And therein lies the risk. They slip through and no one is the wiser. Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.