CHARLESTON – As part of a strong platform for the 2014 Legislative Session, the House of Delegates Leadership intends to introduce a series of bills to strengthen accountability and ensure integrity within state government.
“The foundation upon which every government must build is integrity, accountability, and transparency to the public,” House Speaker Tim Miley said. “Integrity in government is not a partisan issue, it's a character issue.”
The Speaker said elected officials in state government need to move beyond attributing fraud and corruption to any political party. While Democrats can point to criminal activity within the Republican Party such as that of Arch Moore while he was Governor of West Virginia, Republicans can point to the criminal activities of elected Democrat officials in Mingo County, he noted.
“West Virginia legislators should stay above the typical, Washington-type political finger pointing and work together to solve problems,” Miley said. “That is why the first plank of the House of Delegates agenda this session will focus on public/government accountability, and I trust that these issues will receive support from both Democrats and Republicans.”
The following are measures the House leadership intends to introduce this session.
State Qui Tam Act
This legislation is designed to uncover and encourage the reporting of fraud that is being committed upon state government.
“We should ensure that either the Attorney General or a special prosecutor investigates and prosecutes, when appropriate, any incidents of fraud,” House Judiciary Chairman Tim Manchin said. “By encouraging the reporting of suspicious activity, the state can better protect and recover taxpayer funds and goods obtained fraudulently.”
People both inside and outside government will be better empowered to report suspicions of fraud.
“In many instances, citizens see things taking place they think are wrong but they believe nothing can be done,” Delegate Jason Barrett said. “This legislation will encourage people to report their concerns and create a mechanism for them to pursue enforcement.”
Delegate Stephen Skinner, an attorney who serves on the Judiciary Committee, noted the legislation will also include an avenue for a private cause of action.
“If an individual perceives wrongdoing, and cannot get the government to take action, that person would have the ability to initiate legal action,” he said. “This is the best ‘good government’ proposal I have seen since I was elected, and I am excited about it.”
State Purchasing Reforms
“It has become clear to us that the Legislature needs to keep a tighter handle on state purchasing practices,” House Government Organization Chairman Jim Morgan said.
Leadership proposes enhancing the state’s purchasing process by making it more transparent, giving the administration more power to ensure local governments are complying with bidding rules and adding training requirements to all procurement officers on state purchasing laws.
“The bill makes it clear that all spending units of state government must purchase commodities on a competitive bases,” noted House Political Subdivision Chair Tiffany Lawrence. “This bill will give some teeth to purchasing requirements across state political subdivisions and help hold down the cost of government.”
Delegate Jeff Eldridge, who serves on the Government Organization Committee, said the bill will also make heads of spending units personally liable for violations.
“We want to create more accountability for heads of spending units,” he said.
Proper Distribution of Settlement Monies
“Settlement monies from any lawsuit involving the State of West Virginia should go into the general revenue to be appropriated by the Legislature,” House Finance Chairman Brent Boggs said. “This is neither a Democrat nor a Republican issue. Rather, it is an issue of our accountability as public officials to the taxpayers of West Virginia as to how the recovery of monies, that ultimately benefit the public, are to be accounted for.”
House Majority Leader Harry Keith White, who formerly served as Finance Chairman, agreed.
“This has been advocated for some time by both Democrats and Republicans and now is the time to act upon it,” he said.
House Finance Vice Chairman Doug Reynolds pointed out that unfortunately, the current Attorney General has already begun to do that which he campaigned against.
“In recent settlement agreements drafted by the Attorney General, he allowed himself discretion as to how the monies recovered were to be spent,” he said. “We, as members of this legislative body, are the ones held accountable for the appropriation of monies that are recovered for the benefit of the taxpayer.”
* See attached court settlement, under heading “Settlement Consideration.”
Delegate Ricky Moye, who serves on the House Finance Committee, said he believes there will be a great deal of support for such a measure.
“We will seek to pass legislation that accounts for every penny recovered by the Attorney General of West Virginia and make sure it is appropriated in the most responsible manner,” Moye said.
Evaluation of Department of Agriculture Loan Program, Other State Loans
“We must evaluate and restructure, or possibly eliminate, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s Rural Rehabilitation Loan program and other similar programs that may be found in other state agencies,” said House Agriculture Chairman David Walker. “We must always be responsible for how state agencies spend money appropriated to them.”
Delegate Phil Diserio, who serves on the Agriculture Committee, added, “We must make state agencies operate its business as a private business would.”
Delegate Dan Poling, who serves on the House Finance Committee, said he is sure legislators are concerned about the recent troubling findings of the Legislative Auditor in regard to the Department of Agriculture.
“The state cannot be in the business of spending money in careless ways that puts the recovery of taxpayer money at risk,” Poling said.
House Speaker Miley re-iterated what he said last week when discussing turning over some of the audit findings to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“We cannot tolerate any activities that lack integrity or violate the public trust,” Speaker Miley said.
Attorney General Conflict of Interest Issues
Recently there has been an issue raised about a perceived conflict of interest by the Attorney General in a case apparently connected to his wife and her employer. At the present time, there are no rules that specifically apply when an Attorney General has a personal conflict with a case that is pending in his office.
“The public must always believe that its elected officials are acting with objectivity when undertaking official duties,” said Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, an attorney and long-time member of the House Judiciary Committee. “We need a process to handle any potential conflict.”
Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, also an attorney serving on the Judiciary Committee, noted that the current Attorney General has attempted to put up a wall between himself and the lawyers in his office that are working on the case in which his wife involved.
“Despite this effort, very few people would believe that the lawyers in his office would be completely objective when working on a case involving the Attorney General's wife,” Sponaugle said. “Accordingly, we intend to pass legislation which will remove the appearance of a conflict by requiring assignment of the case to outside counsel over which the conflicted Attorney General has no influence or control.”
While these proposed measures are significant steps to improving government accountability, Speaker Miley said they should not be considered an exhaustive list.
“We will always be open to suggestions as to how we can make government more transparent and accountable and operate with integrity to the benefit of the citizens of West Virginia,” Miley said.