CHARLESTON — Probable cause has been found to investigate allegations made by a Putnam County legislator against Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. However, because of state law, a stay in the matter will soon take effect.
As reported earlier exclusively in the Corridor Chronicle, Tennant’s office was represented on December 4, 2015 at a Career Day at Winfield Elementary School. When the paper first reported that questionable material had been distributed at the event on behalf of Tennant’s office, an email from her spokesperson said Tennant was not aware of any violation but “will take steps to correct any oversight.”
The objectional material included pencils, coloring books and other items with either Tennant’s name prominently displayed or her picture on the items. What is generally called a relatively new “trinket law” appears to make distribution of such items a violation of overall state ethics rules.
Putnam Republican Delegate Michel Moffatt of the 22nd District filed a complaint alleging Tennant had broken the law. Such complaints are generally private and Ethics Commissioners and their staff are not permitted to discuss them. However, the rules do not appear to prohibit those involved in the case to provide copies to anyone.
Moffatt has apparently distributed copies of the complaint and a preliminary decision by the Commission that there is probable cause to investigate the matter. The Chronicle obtained copies of those documents. A spokesperson for the Ethics Commission said she could not comment on the authenticity of the documents, which appear to be on state Ethics Commission letterhead.
“The Review Board has made an initial determination that the allegations in the complaint, if taken as true as they are required to be at this stage of the proceedings, constitute violations of the Ethics Act … and emergency Legislative Rule.”
It goes on to say, “(the) Code states that a public official or public employee may not knowingly and intentionally use his of he office or the prestige for his or her own private gain or that of another person.”
The letter, dated February 1, gives Tennant 30 days to file a written response, although she is not required to do so. She can also ask to speak orally to the Commission.
“If you are interested in settling this matter before it proceeds any further,” the letter goes on, “please contact Kimberly Weber, the Ethics Commission General Counsel, who has been assigned to handle this case.”
Then, in a separate letter to Moffatt, dated February 3, the Commission notified him of an administrative stay in the matter due to the upcoming election. According to the letter, signed by Weber, state law requires a stay in cases 60 days before and after an election. The primary election is scheduled May 10.
According to Weber’s letter the effect of the law will be to stay all proceedings as of March 11 for 60 days. After that, the investigation can continue, Weber wrote.
Tennant will be permitted, according to the letter, an opportunity to waive her right to the stay. Moffatt will be notified if she does so.