Issue 1: The Commission has been Active with Respect to Disseminating Information to the Public and Public Officials Regarding the Ethics Act.
The Commission participates in training programs presented by the State Division of Personnel and several State agencies and associations of public agencies and personnel. The Commission also distributes 16,000 copies of its quarterly newsletter to all State and county elected officials. Ethics brochures accompany all financial disclosure forms sent to those required to file. The Commission's web site is another tool used to provide information summarizing the Ethics Act. The Commission also makes presentations to public agencies, associations of public servants and the general public. Much information is disseminated informally by the Commission through telephone calls made by public officials requesting information on specific issues.
Issue 2: The Ethics Commission has Maintained a High Level of Activity with Respect to Enforcing the West Virginia Governmental Ethics Act.
An examination of the Commission's duties related to its role in enforcing the West Virginia Governmental Ethics Act shows that a high level of activity has been maintained, particularly given the Commission's staff of four. The Commission is most active with respect to processing financial disclosure statements and registering and monitoring lobbyists. It also publishes an annual directory of lobbyists. Of the Commission's duties, the issuing of advisory opinions is more common than processing complaints, but the volume of advisory opinions has fallen as many issues were dealt with in opinions issued early in the Commission's history. At the time of this report, the Commission had issued over 750 advisory opinions, thereby providing a considerable body of precedence that makes it unnecessary to duplicate opinions on the same issues. The Commission has received an increasing volume of informal requests for information. Informal requests are not recorded but the Commission feels that they are an important factor in keeping down the number of advisory opinions and formal complaints.
The Commission registered nearly 500 lobbyists in calendar year 2000 and collected nearly 1,500 lobbyist activity reports. Over 4,000 financial disclosure statements were filed by public officials and candidates for public office in 2000. These functions accounted for much of the Commission's activities.
Requests for employment exemptions are seldom rejected by the Commission due to the fact that officials generally discuss their desire for an exemption with Commission staff prior to filing a request. Few officials choose to file a formal request if they are informed that it is unlikely to be granted.
The Commission receives a relatively small number of complaints each year with few resulting in a violation during the years since the Commission's creation. Other complaints resulted in conciliation agreements which are a somewhat more common means for settling complaint cases.
WVC §6B-2-3 requires the Commission to issue an advisory opinion within thirty days of its request. Since the Commission meets monthly, it should not be difficult for the Commission to act upon advisory opinion requests in a timely manner. The Commission maintains a log book that records the date a request for either type of advisory opinion (Open Meetings Law or ethics opinion) is received. Although the issuing of an opinion can be tracked by referring to the State Register, the Commission does not maintain detailed records tracking the length of time required to do so. The Commission generally issues an opinion at the next meeting following its request. If the request for an opinion is received within a few days prior to a meeting, it may be held over for consideration until the next meeting. This provides the Commission with adequate time to study the request. Since the Commission only meets once each month, the result may be that some requests take slightly longer than thirty days to process.
A number of time frames are found in the WVC §6B-2-4 regarding the processing of complaints. The Commission maintains a form for each complaint that records the statutory time frames for its disposition. The Commission also maintains a database of complaints that includes the date of filing, the official's position and the final disposition of the complaint.
The West Virginia Ethics Commission has performed satisfactorily and the Legislative Auditor recommends that the agency be continued.
The Commission should consider maintaining data on the length of time required to issue each request for an advisory opinion.