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Ethics agency gets a boost

April 21, 2005

After years of a cash-starved existence, the West Virginia Ethics Commission is on the rebound, thanks to Gov. Joe Manchin. Its challenge now will be to prevent conflicts of interest that adversely affect citizens of the state.

The ethics legislation passed this session got a big boost from the case of Del. Jerry Mezzatesta, who chaired the House Education Committee.

Mezzatesta also worked as a board office administrator for the Hampshire County Schools.

The Charleston Gazette reported that in 1999, he promised that because of his job, he wouldn't solicit grants from any state agency for the school system.

However, letters turned up that indicated he had sought grants. Mezzatesta and the Ethics Commission have since agreed to settle those complaints with a public reprimand and a $2,000 fine.

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Such things won't happen so easily in the future. The legislation that takes effect July 1 will require new reports from people who hold more than one job in the public sector.

The law also empowers the commission to collect and audit reports from lobbyists and to provide additional training to the state's administrative law judges.

In addition, the commission will continue to investigate complaints. Since 1989, The Associated Press reported, about 20 a year have been filed. In 2004, there were 34.

If citizens and others believe that the commission will act when there is a bona fide conflict of interest, we have no doubt that more complaints will be filed.

What the commission and its staff must guard against is allowing the complaint process to be used for political paybacks or for frivolous accusations. Nothing will prompt lawmakers to cut the agency's budget quicker than pursuing trivial complaints.

On the other hand, the commission's plans to use its Web site to post advisory opinions to local governments and financial information garnered from lobbyists should please citizens who watch local government closely.

The more information that is in the public eye, the better government West Virginians will get.

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