The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

May 10, 2013

Pugh ethics violations case: Settlement outcome could be resignation

Hearing postponed until June 6 so parties can reach an agreement

By Wendy Holdren
Register-Herald Reporter

— If a settlement agreement is reached in Beckley Mayor Emmett Pugh’s ethics violations case, a number of outcomes are possible, including that he could be asked to resign.

A hearing was set to begin May 1 in Beckley, but was postponed after counsel for both sides filed a motion for a month continuance to reach a settlement agreement. The agreement, if reached, must be presented at the next regular meeting of the West Virginia Ethics Commission on June 6.  

Joan Parker, executive director of the West Virginia Ethics Commission, said the sky is the limit on what can be included in a settlement agreement.

“Parties can get creative with and agree to things that aren’t necessarily in the statute,” Parker explained. “One time, in lieu of a fine, a negotiated settlement was that an elected official or public servant was able to make a charitable contribution, but he wasn’t allowed to take the tax deduction and it had to be anonymous.”

She said that’s an example of something the commission couldn’t order, but could be applied through a settlement agreement.

“We had a situation a few years back with the mayor of Pratt, who as a condition of her settlement agreed not to run for public office for I think

10 years, or to seek public employment for that time.”

She said there are variations on what parties can agree to, but if the case were to go to a hearing and the commission establishes that violations of the Ethics Act were committed, the commission can impose certain sanctions.

“The commission could impose sanctions, like a public reprimand, a cease and desist order, a $5,000 fine for each violation, or restitution.”

For example, she said, the commission prosecuted a former mayor who authorized an expense reimbursement to himself that the hearing examiner concluded he was not entitled to. He was ordered to make restitution to the city for the reimbursement he obtained in violation of the Ethics Act.

“Another thing the commission could order is that a respondent repay the commission for the costs of the investigation.”

Any expenses that the commission may have incurred, such as staff travel expenses, hiring an expert witness, payments to a court reporter or hiring a private investigator, could be charged to the defendant if he or she is found guilty of ethics violations.

“Those are the sanctions the commission could impose and the final one is that the commission is authorized to make a recommendation for the removal from office or termination of employment, but it is not authorized to remove from office or terminate an employee.”

She said even though the commission does not have the authority to order the resignation of a mayor, the parties could agree to that by way of the settlement agreement.

If the parties are successful in their negotiation, they will present, in a closed adjudicatory session following the public meeting June 6, a proposed conciliation agreement that the mayor will have signed. If a majority of commissioners vote to approve it, then the chairperson will sign off on it and sign the order and it will become a matter of public record.

However, if the parties are not able to come to an agreement to propose to the commissioners, or if they reach an agreement but the commission rejects it, then the hearing will resume at a later date.

Pugh is charged with nine ethics violations, including the use of public office for private gain, accepting improper gifts, use of a public office for his own private gain and private gain of another, and prohibited interest in public contracts.

The complaint alleges that in return for providing public contracts with the city of Beckley and free use of the city’s resources, including material and labor, Pugh was “financially rewarded with gifted ownership interests in companies resulting in private gain of more than $12,000.”

The Probable Cause Review Board also alleges Pugh inappropriately used a vehicle leased under the Beckley Sanitary Board.

— E-mail: wholdren@register-herald.com