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Deciding what's ethical

July 20, 2004

Ethics panels that oversee elected officials are often treated like stray cats. Nobody wants to kill them outright, but few lawmakers want to give them a secure and happy home.

But that idea may get new life in West Virginia, because of the actions of Del. Jerry Mezzatesta, a Hampshire County lawmaker who chairs the House Education Committee.

The state Ethics Commission recently dismissed a complaint that Mezzatesta sought a state education grant for his employer, the Hampshire County Board of Education. The panel also absolved him of any blame because he accepted both his county pay and legislative pay while the Legislature was in session.

In a perfect world, lawmakers would be prohibited from lobbying on behalf of projects that directly benefit those who pay their salaries. And most would agree that a lawmaker working in Charleston shouldn't get paid by anybody else during the annual session.

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But as noted by The Associated Press, the Ethics Commission has been kept on the legislative equivalent of life support, getting enough cash to exist, but not enough funding to do real investigations.

That would change under a proposal advanced by Secretary of State Joe Manchin, the Democratic candidate for governor. Manchin would allow the Ethics Commission to set its own budget and start its own investigations.

Manchin would also extend the statute of limitations for filing complaints from one to three years and require a mandatory ethics course for all political appointees.

Manchin has his heart in the right place, but based the nation's experience with the independent counsel law, no one is going to give the Ethics Commission an unlimited budget or allow it to become the equivalent of an internal affairs department for the Legislature.

More funding would be welcome, but the Legislature really needs to nail down what actions will be considered conflicts of interest under the law. There's no doubt about what Mezzatesta did, but plenty of debate over whether it was right or wrong.

The Legislature should decide what's unacceptable behavior, then fund the commission adequately enough so that citizens see it as a panel with teeth, as opposed to a toothless tiger.

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