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House speaker withdraws WVEA job application

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia House Speaker Rick Thompson on Friday defended his decision to seek a state Ethics Commission opinion on whether he could legally go to work for the West Virginia Education Association, while keeping his legislative leadership post.

Thompson, who has since dropped plans to work for the teachers union, said the dual roles wouldn't have created a conflict. He said he would have put his House speaker job first.

Earlier this week, the Ethics Commission concluded that Thompson would have an "inescapable conflict," if he took the job with the teachers union and remained House speaker.

"Obviously, I don't agree with the decision," Thompson, D-Wayne, said in a telephone interview Friday. "I certainly would not do anything wrong. But if that's their decision, that's their decision, and I will abide by it."

Thompson, a Wayne County lawyer, acknowledged that he recently negotiated a contract with the teachers union. The contract would have paid Thompson a flat annual fee for legal services. Thompson said he applied for the WVEA job because business has slowed at his law firm and the teachers group had an opening.

The two sides agreed to wait for an Ethics Commission decision before Thompson started working for the WVEA, he said. 

"I wanted to make sure everything I did had the approval of the Ethics Commission," Thompson said. "That's what they're there for. It's the first time I've ever asked them [for an advisory opinion]."

On Thursday, Ethics Commission lawyers introduced an advisory opinion that would have given Thompson the green light to keep his House speaker post and still go to work for the teachers union.

The staff-written agreement would have prohibited Thompson from sponsoring legislation that gave pay raises to teachers. The WVEA routinely lobbies state lawmakers for pay increases.

"The commission finds he has a unique financial interest in such legislation as the association's members are public employees who pay membership dues, including payments through payroll deductions," the proposed advisory opinion stated.

Thompson also would have been barred from helping the WVEA set its legislative agenda, and hiring or firing the union's lobbyists, according to the proposed opinion.

At Thursday's meeting, Ethics Commission members rejected the staff-recommended advisory opinion. The commission said it would be impossible for Thompson to avoid a conflict because of his powerful role as House speaker.

Commission members directed the agency's lawyers to write a new opinion that advised Thompson that he would have an "inescapable conflict" if he accepted the teachers union job. They plan to vote on the revised opinion next month.

The staff-written opinion didn't include Thompson's name, but said the request came from "the presiding officer of a house of the West Virginia Legislature," who "is also a licensed attorney."

Thompson said he never requested anonymity. Instead, he followed the Ethics Commission's standard procedures, which keep secret the names of public officials who request advisory opinions.

"I didn't ask them not to use my name," Thompson said Friday. "I knew, once my request was made, it would become public. I didn't mind that a bit."

The advisory opinion also didn't disclose that Thompson was seeking a job as general counsel with the teachers union. The document referred to "an association whose membership consists of public employees in a profession."

Thompson initially declined to disclose that he planned to work for the teachers union. WVEA President Dale Lee revealed the proposed contract with Thompson Thursday night.

Thompson said Friday he was simply trying to protect a potential client.

"It's part of the attorney-client relationship," he said. "If they chose to tell you, fine. But I didn't want to break attorney-client privilege."

In his request for the advisory opinion, Thompson told the Ethics Commission, "As a citizen legislator, he obviously has the right and need to hold additional employment, as do nearly all of the other 133 legislative members."

Thompson's legislative pay was $52,100 last year, and $54,650 the year before."

In the request, Thompson also asked the commission to "give consideration that throughout the Legislature, various members' occupations constantly overlap into issues being handled before the body."

Thompson noted that other legislators work for organizations that routinely lobby the Legislature.

For instance, Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, works as executive director of the West Virginia State Medical Association, while Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, works as a United Mine Workers union representative.

Thompson said he plans to call the Ethics Commission next week to see whether he can withdraw his request for an advisory opinion.

On Friday, Republican lawmakers criticized Thompson for trying to land a job with the WVEA while keeping his House speaker post.

"It would be completely inappropriate for the speaker to be engaged in that type of scenario with a union," said Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson. "It doesn't surprise me that the unions would try to hire him, but it does disappoint me."

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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