This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

Aug. 4, 2006

State lobbyists randomly selected for Ethics audits

By Phil Kabler
Staff writer

Later this month, the state Ethics Commission will be in the lottery business — at least for a day — as they draw names of the first 20 lobbyists to undergo financial audits.

The lottery is part of last year’s legislation intended to strengthen the state ethics law.

On Thursday, commissioners awarded a contract to conduct the audits to the Charleston accounting firm of Rowan and Associates, the lowest of four bidders at $105 an hour plus expenses.

The 2005 ethics legislation gives the commission authority to randomly audit lobbyists to verify that their financial disclosure reports of spending on legislators and other public officials are complete and accurate.

While the Legislature gave the commission authority to conduct the audits — and an annual budget of up to $25,000 for expenses — the legislation leaves the details for conducting such audits up to the commission.

West Virginia also will be one of the first states to conduct financial audits of lobbyists, Executive Director Lew Brewer noted, meaning the commission will not be able to follow precedents set in other states.

“It’s like ‘Star Trek.’ We’re going someplace where nobody’s gone before,” he said.

Lobbyists have been required to file spending reports with the Ethics Commission since its inception in 1989, but the 2005 law marks the first attempt to verify that the disclosures are accurate.

Later this month, the commission will assign a number to each of the roughly 450 lobbyists registered with the commission since July 1, 2005. Then, they will use a random number-generating computer program to draw numbers for the first 20 lobbyists to be audited.

In about half of those cases, the audits will simply involve verifying that the lobbyist had no expenses. So far this year, 53 percent of the 402 active lobbyists have reported no spending on legislators or other officials.

For the other disclosures, auditors will be verifying the accuracy of the spending reports, as well as looking for “red flags,” such as dinner tabs that appear too low for the restaurant in question, Brewer noted.

He said the commission will be able to provide the auditors with any tips or complaints from citizens, including reports of lobbyists buying dinner or drinks for public officials on specific dates. The auditors could then match the dates in question with disclosures on the spending reports.

Under the law, lobbyists have to cooperate fully with auditors, and must execute all releases, waivers and authorizations requested by auditors to obtain any and all lobbying related financial records.

The law also is silent on what the Ethics Commission is to do if an audit uncovers fraud or gross misrepresentation by lobbyists, who presumably could face hearings for ethics law violations.

“It’s very hypothetical at this point to say what we would do,” Brewer said.

Commissioner Larry Rowe, a former state senator, said he believes the Legislature also would have the authority to ban lobbyists under those circumstances.

To contact staff writer Phil Kabler, use e-mail or call 348-1220.


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