CHARLESTON — Thursday’s West Virginia Ethics Commission meeting was marked by transitions, as the commission accepted the retirement of executive director Rebecca Stepto and the resignation of commissioner Larry Tweel.
“I definitely will miss this job,” Stepto told commissioners. “In my 45 years of work, this is my favorite job ever. But somehow I got old, and it’s time to retire.”
Stepto took over as head of the Ethics Commission in 2014, first on an interim basis, following the commission’s firing of then-executive director Joan Parker without explanation. During the 2014 regular session, Parker had wrangled with legislators over efforts to exempt conservation district officers from the Ethics Act.
As Commission Chairman Robert Wolfe noted Thursday, Stepto led the commission through tumultuous times, including budget cuts and implementation of 2014 legislation that completely reorganized the commission, shrinking its membership from 12 to nine commissioners.
“We’re going to miss her and her expertise, especially on legal issues,” he said.
Commissioners appointed commission general counsel Kim Weber as interim executive director, effective after Stepto retires July 31. A candidate search for a permanent replacement has already begun.
Stepto was the fifth executive director in the 31-year history of the Ethics Commission.
Commissioners also accepted the resignation of Tweel, who has served on the commission since its 2014 reorganization. Tweel, a Huntington lawyer, said he wanted to devote more time to his law practice and other family-owned businesses.
Also Thursday, the commission ruled that a police officer may not accept an all-expenses-paid trip to a Florida resort for a sales conference for a manufacturer of bulletproof vests and other law enforcement safety equipment.
The manufacturer wanted to recognize the officer, who was wearing one of the company’s vests when he was shot twice in the line of duty, avoiding serious injury.
It offered to provide the officer and a guest with free air travel, lodging, meals and transportation, as well as admission to a reception, dinner cruise and tour of the company’s manufacturing plant.
Commissioners agreed that accepting the trip would violate the Ethics Act’s prohibition on public employees and officials from accepting gifts from companies that do business, or are attempting to do business, with the public body.
The law makes exceptions for individuals who are participating in panel discussions or otherwise have speaking engagements at such functions to accept free meals, lodging and travel. In this case, however, the officer would simply have been recognized during the conference.
At the request of Commissioner Bob Harmon, commissioners amended the advisory opinion to clarify that the decision was not a reflection on the officer or his profession.
“It makes me a little bit upset that so many other people are honored for doing things, but our law enforcement officers are not,” he said.
The commission also approved a contract exemption to allow a company co-owned by Pleasants County Commissioner Mike Smith to lease space in a business park being developed by the Pleasants County Development Authority.
The authority’s ability to secure a $2.5 million federal grant and obtain Division of Highways approval for a $375,000 access road to the business park is contingent on Smith entering into a lease agreement to locate Smith Candy there, commissioners were advised.