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‘Ethics Primer’ Offered at Independence Hall

September 13, 2013
By JOSELYN KING Staff Writer , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

Public employees on the job in West Virginia can't accept gifts valued at more than $25, and if they win a door prize at a seminar they attend valued at more than $25, they must donate it to charity or their agency, according to information provided by the West Virginia Ethics Commission.

Joan Parker, executive director of the West Virginia Ethics Commission, presented a training session on ethics for public employees Thursday at West Virginia Independence Hall.

The West Virginia Ethics Act prohibits public employees from expressly asking for gifts from clients and those doing business with the state, she noted. They can accept smaller gifts when unsolicited, provided their fair market value is less than $25.

There is no limit, however, on dinners out and the amount of food and beverages a client or vendor can give a public employee - so long as the provider is present when they are consumed, Parker said.

Public agencies also can't use public dollars to provide door prizes for gatherings and seminars unless the item's value is less than $25, she continued.

Parker said the agency's role is to advise, train and educate both elected officials and workers for government agencies on the law under the West Virginia Ethics Act, and also to investigate complaints filed with the agency against those seeking to use a position in government for personal gain. One of the key reasons for having an ethics commission is so people have confidence in their government, Parker noted.

"You don't see people in this country out protesting and trying to overthrow this government," she said. "It's because there are measures in place through the Ethics Act and other acts to assure transparency in government, and to minimize public corruption."

A second role of the West Virginia Ethics Commission is to give public employees and elected officials some frameworks on how to properly conduct themselves while on the job. The agency seeks to protect the public from those seeking to benefit from their public position.

"I'm not surprised anymore after six to eight years on the job," Parker said. "I'm convinced people are limited only by their imagination on how they can violate statutes."

Public employees are prohibited from using public property for their personal use, she continued.

This use may not specifically cost the government any dollars, but it does constitute use of public property for personal gain, she continued.

Parker addressed the issues of outside employment and "double dipping" by government employees. Public employees are permitted to have a second job or start their own business, but they must work the job on their own time "and not use public resources" at their second job, she said.

Employees also may be employed at two paid government positions, such as a county employee serving as an adviser for a state agency, according to Parker. But they cannot "be on two clocks at the same time" and receive compensation for both jobs simultaneously, she added.

The West Virginia Ethics Commission also oversees and interprets open meeting laws in the state, but it doesn't have the authority to enforce them, Parker noted. Complaints about open meeting infractions are handled in circuit court.

Parker said the agency would like to see government entities - such as city councils and county commissions - be more specific when they call for private, executive sessions. These closed-door session are permitted when members need to discuss personnel matters, litigation, matters involving the sale or purchase of real estate or to plan or consider an official investigation.

The subject of the executive session must stem from the agenda of the public meeting and involve an item being discussed in public, she added. If the reason for an executive session is "litigation," the government body should state the court case they will be discussing. Also, if the subject is "personnel," members should note whether it involves the hiring or firing of an employee, an employee's pay or the discipline of an employee, Parker said.

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