by Ron Gregory
CHARLESTON – Allegations of impropriety continued to fly today in advance of the October 7 road bond election.
A complaint has allegedly been filed with the state ethics commission accusing West Virginia University President Elwood Gee of using his office improperly to promote the bond.
Although the ethics commission will neither confirm nor deny the existence of specific ethics complaint, a copy provided by the complainant says the filing occurred September 29.
The complaint alleges that on September 27, after attending a press conference at the state capitol, Gee “did violate the West Virginia Ethics Act, specifically 6B-2-5(b) by appearing in a political commercial for the upcoming road bond referendum.”
The complaint repeatedly points out that Gee’s actions occurred “during business hours” and in his role as WVU president. It says, “while at the capitol, during business hours, Gee appeared in a video commercial being shown on the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and worldwide via the Vote 4 Roads WV group and the group West Virginians for Better Transportation.”
In the video, in which Gee is said to be identified by name and title, he allegedly said, “Saturday, October 7th is a transformative day for West Virginia. On that day we have the chance to transform this state by building new roads in every county, by not raising our taxes, and by creating jobs for 50,000 people. Vote yes! I’m voting for it and want everyone else to vote for it.”
The complaint points to various Websites where the video is still available, including the West Virginia Business-Industry Council (BIC) site. It had been viewed more than 1,600 times by 9 a.m., Friday, the complaint says.
“Making political commercials for any ballot issue while on duty as a public employee falls outside the ‘usual and customary duties’ standard for behavior by a public official, most recently cited by your body (the ethics commission) in AO 2010-23 and AO 2012-22,” the complaint says.
The complaint adds that Gee also violated 6B-2-5(b) by using his position for private gain by his attempts “to use his office, influence and persons in support of this statewide ballot issue. That private gain is represented by political gain in the goal of victory of said bond issue.” It cites a 2006 decision in the matter of Gordon Lambert that says, “private gain includes political gain.”
Finally, the complainant asks the ethics commission “to reflect on the spirit of the Ethics Act” and prior legislative findings in determining that the WVU official has violated the law.
The road bond vote has been controversial matter since its inception. While placing the issue on the ballot was done at the request of Governor Jim Justice by a Republican-controlled legislature, many have criticized the assertion that “no tax increases” are involved.
Opponents of the proposal point out that the legislature raised numerous Department of Motor Vehicle fees, effective July 1, to cover the expected debt created by passage of the bond. Vehicle license renewals increased dramatically along with other DMV fees. Some legislators who oppose the bond say the increased fees can be used to improve highways without incurring additional debt.
The issue has been further complicated by Justice’s political party switch from Democrat to Republican barely six months after taking office as governor. The state GOP executive committee and several county Republican committees have gone on record as opposing the bond. Some Democrats who originally supported the proposal now say they do not because they cannot trust the governor, citing his party change.