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W.Va. receives failing grade for financial disclosure

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia once again got a failing grade -- this time for the state's level of financial disclosure for judges.

The Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan nonprofit investigative news organization, released the report Wednesday. The report looked into the level of disclosure throughout the U.S.

When compared to other states, West Virginia ranked 23 on the report. The Mountain State received 46.8 out of 100 points, an F, for financial disclosure.

West Virginia was docked in the areas of investments, gifts/reimbursements and liabilities. However, it scored well in the categories of accountability and the public's ease of access.

The state wasn't alone in its failing grade, however.

In fact, 42 other states received an F. Only two states, California and Maryland, received Cs and six states received Ds. Requirements for federal judges were deemed the best in the report, which gave them a B.

When asked about the report, West Virginia Supreme Court spokeswoman Jennifer Bundy responded in a written statement, "we don't comment on special interest or political reports."

The abundance of failing grades made some skeptical.

"Any time a group gives us an F in something, it merits a little inspection but my reaction is with 42 Fs, six Ds, two Cs and a B, it makes me a little skeptical of the perspective of the folks doing this study," said Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha. 

"Having said that, I think it still merits looking into the criticisms of us," Palumbo said. "Our overall ranking got us 23 in the country, slightly above the middle. Considering where we are in other rankings, it's not that much to be embarrassed about."

Judges file two financial disclosure forms, sending one to the West Virginia Ethics Commission and the other to the state Supreme Court, the report notes.

Reports with the commission are available online; however, those sent to the state Supreme Court are not, the report notes.

"Financial disclosure under the ethics act, Supreme Court justices and circuit judges are covered by the same standard that all of the other public officials are," explained Joan Parker, executive director of the West Virginia Ethics Commission.

Parker noted the Ethics Act was amended within the last five years to require more disclosure, such as disclosure of spousal information.

She also explained there are some mechanisms built into judicial code and the ethics act to prevent possible conflicts of interest.

The category of investments is where the state was hit hardest. The report says the state "asks little about the investments of its high court judges," noting in particular that judges aren't required to disclose income, transactions or the value of each investment. Judges only are required to put down the name of the asset.

Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, said there is room for improvement, especially in this area.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed in an F ranking," Manchin said. "It seems there are things we can do better."

"If judges are going to be deciding cases and any if those cases may affect their investments, I don't know how else we can police that unless they do disclose those investments," he later added. "It seems like an appropriate thing to do but I haven't heard the other side of it."

The report also docked the state in the area of liabilities, saying not enough information is provided for the description and value of liability. The state did score half of the possible points for disclosing the creditor.

For gifts and reimbursements, the state scored 6.5 out of 20, saying state judges didn't provide enough information about the description and dollar value of gifts and the source, description and dollar value of reimbursements

Parker explained public officials may not accept gifts worth more than $25 each year. However, as the report notes, judges may accept unlimited food and beverages as long as the person paying for it is with them during the meal.

Parker said there is no reporting requirement for meals unless legislators passed new laws.  

Manchin said the state should find a "happy medium" for unlimited food and beverages. He said he doesn't think it should be completely prohibited, however.

 "To not allow them to have meals with anyone likely to come before them is a bit much," Manchin said. "I don't know how you would place that standard or how do you know if someone is likely to go before you? Any lawyer could possibly go before the court. Any business is possibly going to come before the court. I don't think that's reasonable."

Manchin said he thinks it should be within reason.

"Maybe put some limit on what they can spend on a meal for you and your family, even if they are there," he said. "But I don't think they should be prevented from it."

The state scored a perfect 10 for accountability because, the report notes, judges face misdemeanor charges if they knowingly file a false report.

Another highlight was ease of access, where the state scored 7.5 out of 10 points for putting half its reports online.

The Mountain State also scored 15 out of 20 points for disclosure of outside income because judges must report any income they or their spouses receive, the report states.

Parker said another highlight not mentioned in the report is that the Ethics Commission identifies people delinquent in filing financial disclosures.

"The ethics commission takes seriously its obligation to ensure that everyone who is required to submit financial disclosure statement does so and does so accurately," Parker said. "If we thought there were compelling reasons to add level of detail for which we were poorly graded, then that would be something the commission would have chosen to address when the draft was presented to them and when it was presented to them, they were satisfied that no legislative proposal was necessary to correct perceived conflicts."

Manchin echoed Palumbo's sentiments of how West Virginia compared nationally.

"Obviously, they've got some standards and have set some of those standards of something higher than most states are meeting but the one of the assets seems really reasonable to me," Manchin said, later adding, "We need to address what we can. I don't think we should let these reports dictate all your policy. It's good they look at those things and report back to us and report deficiencies."

Palumbo agreed, saying although it shouldn't completely sway policy, it may be worth a look.

"I think it merits us taking a look at it," Palumbo said. "I don't think we should jump to any conclusions because they gave us an F. But it doesn't mean we shouldn't make any changes to make disclosures any better."

Contact writer Andrea Lannom at Andrea.Lannom@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-5148. Follow her at www.twitter.com/AndreaLannom.


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