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Ethics panel mulls airline 'inconvenience' compensation

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State employees involuntarily bumped from flights while traveling on state business generally can keep whatever compensation the airline gives them, the West Virginia Ethics Commission ruled Thursday.

The issue came up after a government employee returning from an out-of-state conference was bumped from an overbooked flight from the conference city. The airline could not arrange any alternate itineraries, since all connecting flights into Charleston that day were booked.

Ultimately, the airline flew the woman to Pittsburgh, where she had to call a friend to pick her up and drive her home. As compensation, the airline gave her a check for $1,084, or 400 percent of the one-way airfare, as mandated under federal Department of Transportation regulations.

In her request for the advisory opinion, the state employee asked whether she could consider that personal compensation, or whether the money belongs to the state.

"I look at it as a form of liquidated damages for the annoyance and inconvenience that is personal to the individual," Commissioner Kemp Morton said, defending the employee's right to keep the cash.

He compared it to an airline employee dropping a suitcase on the woman's foot -- she would be entitled to any compensation for the injury, not the state.

In approving the advisory opinion, commissioners left open circumstances where the compensation could be due the state agency that purchased the ticket.

"The question is, who suffered the majority of the inconvenience? I would say, leave that to the discretion of the agency," said Commissioner Jon Turak.

In the case at hand, the woman was traveling on a Saturday. However, Turak said that if a state employee were bumped from an early morning flight, preventing him from returning to work that day as scheduled, there could be an argument that the agency, not the employee, had suffered the greater inconvenience.

Also during Thursday's meeting, the commission:

• Authorized an employee of Archives and History to enter into a contract with the Governor's Office to compile the official papers for former Gov. Joe Manchin.

In the past, the state has set aside about $100,000 to compile and publish each past governor's speeches, proclamations and other documents into book form.

The contracts are no-bid and, traditionally, are awarded to whomever the past governor chooses to prepare the publication.

Commissioners said it would not be a conflict so long as the employee does not work on the official papers during her work hours at Archives and History.

• Extended through 2014 an employment exemption allowing Handley Mayor Essie Ford to continue to also serve as the town's police chief.

The Ethics Commission first granted the exemption in 2009, after officials from the small Upper Kanawha Valley town indicated that the town -- which has a total annual budget of $91,000 -- lacked the resources to hire a full-time police chief. Ford is paid $250 a month to serve in that capacity.

Commission executive director Theresa Kirk noted that, under state law, mayors have certain police powers, including authority to arrest individuals.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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