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Official levels conflict-of-interest accusation at attorney

October 07, 2005|By CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Tense words were exchanged Thursday morning between a Berkeley County commissioner and the county's attorney over an issue Commissioner Howard Strauss said could be perceived as a conflict of interest.

Attorney Norwood Bentley, who said after the meeting that he was taken aback by Strauss' comments, refuted the allegations of being involved in a conflict of interest.

"I resent any implication that I have done anything untoward or that doesn't fit with the law or the rules of professional responsibility," Bentley said during the meeting.

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Strauss said during the heated exchange that he would avoid discussing specifics, but he said his concerns centered on whether Bentley has been offering advice to county officials who late last year filed a lawsuit against the commission.

Last December, Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely, Sheriff Randy Smith, Circuit Clerk Virginia Sine and outgoing Assessor Evelyn Fink filed a lawsuit against the commission, alleging the commission adopted an unfair salary scale, refused to allow an adequate number of employees to be hired and has not dispersed reasonable budgets to certain offices.

Following sizeable employee salary increases recently, Games-Neely has written an order removing her office from the list of petitioners, but the other three wish to pursue the suit, Bentley said.

While talking during the meeting about the lawsuit - which Bentley said has been put on hold by a Circuit Court judge - Strauss said he wanted to make it clear that Bentley only represents the County Commission. He should not offer advice to any other county official unless he is directed to do so by the commission, Strauss said.

Bentley, an attorney with the law firm Bowles Rice McDavid Graff & Love, said his contract with the county requires him to serve all county officials, not simply the commission.

He said he is not now, and never has been, guilty of being involved in a conflict of interest.

Should the lawsuit wind its way into a courtroom, Bentley said he would "bow out" and tell the County Commission to hire another attorney to handle that case.

He said he has met with the county officials who filed the lawsuit to try to resolve the matter.

"I don't think you mean to say, don't give any advice to them while this (lawsuit) is pending," Bentley said during the meeting as he tried to clarify Strauss' statements.

Strauss responded that he believes a conflict of interest exists because Bentley has been giving advice to those who have sued the commission.

"Your representation should be of the county commissioners and not the petitioners," Strauss said.

"That's not what your contract says," Bentley replied.

He then curtly told Strauss that if he wished to discuss the matter further he needed to make an appointment to meet. Strauss replied that he would schedule an appointment.

After the meeting, Strauss said that any "dual representation" by Bentley should cease until after the lawsuit is resolved. Any advice needed by one of the petitioners should be given by an outside law firm, Strauss said.

Strauss declined to say what prompted him to address the matter, and Bentley said he could only speculate on what might have prompted the allegations.

"I don't know what it was all about. It came out of the clear blue," said Bentley, who has been the lead counsel for the county since 1993. His firm is paid $92,000 a year to represent the county.

He said he would have preferred that Strauss broached the topic privately. During the discussion at the meeting, two reporters and several members of the public were sitting in the audience.

Still, Bentley agreed to discuss it after the meeting.

"I feel compelled to publicly address it, because I was publicly attacked," he said.

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