Without disclosure, we don’t know what conflicts of interest our judges may have

A sitting West Virginia judge, Beth Walker, overturned an important ruling to the benefit of companies her husband owned stock in. Now, her conflict of interest is the center of a case that may be heard by the US Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court decides whether this should have been grounds for her recusal, West Virginians should reflect on another, larger and invisible web of potential conflicts of interest surrounding many West Virginia judges — millions of dollars in secret independent campaign expenditures.

These big-money groups have names like, “Moving West Virginia Forward” and “West Virginians for Fair Courts” that hide who the wealthy special interests that fund them are, and what they want from the judges they support or oppose. Recently, there has been an explosion of secret money in West Virginia and state judicial races across the country. A Brennan Center analysis found that 70% of the spending on TV ads in state judicial races ahead of the 2016 election was from dark money sources. Last year, wealthy special interests groups pulled off another victory in a West Virginia Supreme Court race. Largely anonymous groups spent more than $2 million supporting Beth Walker’s candidacy, duplicating the feat Don Blankenship pulled off 12 years ago.

In the past, West Virginia has been a leader in supporting a fair-minded judiciary. After a particularly egregious instance of secret money influencing the court, our state legislature enacted a landmark judicial public financing system to ensure our judges rule on the constitution and law, not based on special interest influence. They also passed a groundbreaking bill limiting contributions to independent groups and requiring the groups to disclose the identity of their controlling entities and donors. However, in recent years, new US Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United and the growth in new types of dark money spending mean that these disclosure laws are not keeping up with the times. Our campaign finance disclosure laws must be revised.

In Justice Walker’s case, whatever the outcome, all parties recognize that stock ownership is a legitimate conflict of interest concern for a judge to rule fairly on a case. With this in mind, West Virginia, every other state, and federal courts address this concern through common-sense financial disclosure forms. Judges have to be transparent about the companies they invest in so that everyone knows that all rulings are fair, impartial, and free from bias.

But why should this stop at investments? Millions of dollars are being spent to elect our judges in total secrecy from the people of West Virginia. West Virginian voters deserve to know who is trying to influence their votes and their judges. While some will claim these expenditures are independent and that there are laws against coordination, this barrier is not always effective or respected. In February, for example, a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice uploaded b-roll footage of herself onto YouTube, which was then used in television ads by an outside group. Even if these groups are independent, as they claim, there is no compelling interest that these donations made in secret should not be exposed to the sunlight of transparency.

Without common-sense disclosure laws, anyone could end up across the courtroom from another other party who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to a dark money group supporting the judge ruling on their case. And they wouldn’t even have the information, to ask the judge to recuse himself or herself. The faith of West Virginians’ in their courts is rightfully tarnished by such secrecy, but the solution is simple. As dark money tries to find new and hidden ways into influencing our elections, it is critical that our state legislators protect the fairness, impartiality, and public trust in the judiciary through strong, up-to-date disclosure laws.

Julie Archer is Project Manger at WV Citizen Action Group and Co-Coordinator of WV Citizens for Clean Elections, a statewide coalition working to increase transparency and accountability in West Virginia elections.

Fall VOTER 2017

This issue of the VOTER is loaded with timely and important information ranging from the new LWV WV president’s 3 point plan of action to the WV voter registration purge to the natural resource and environmental issues facing West Virginia.

pdf iconVoterFall2017.pdf

September 2017 Morgantown Newsletter

ELECTION INTEGRITY IN WEST VIRGINIA– October 18

Our first fall meeting will be held Wednesday, October 18, 7:00-9:00 p.m. at the Aull Center, next to the Library at 351 Spruce Street. This public meeting will focus on issues surrounding voting in West Virginia. We have invited Donald “Deak” Kersey, Director and Deputy Legal Counsel from the Secretary of State’s Office, to present information and to respond to questions from our league and participants. Among our questions are the following:

1. How are voter rolls cleaned up—what criteria, how often, how many people were “purged” under the new SOS? Is the process standardized across counties?
2. Voter ID—where does this stand now?
3. How secure are our voting machines and what are the efforts to standardize machines and testing?
4. What is the status of the Motor Voter program?
5. What efforts are being made to increase voter turnout, including ballot by mail?
6. Has the SOS responded to requests for information by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity?
7. Is the SOS is considering dropping ERIC in favor of Crosscheck (for interstate duplication of voters)? What safeguards are in place to prevent discrimination?

This will be an important informational/discussion meeting. It is also an opportunity for members to meet and greet current and potential members. Please bring a friend! There will be refreshments following the meeting.

Road Bond Amendment

On Saturday, October 7, WV voters will decide on the ballot issue on whether WV should sell bonds to repair and build roads. A constitutional amendment is necessary to authorize the debt. If passed, the “Roads to Prosperity” amendment will give the legislature authorization to issue and sell bonds to be used for the improvement and construction of state roads. The amendment calls for the sale of up to $1.6 billion in state bonds over the next four years. The legislature has already passed increases in gasoline taxes, new car sales taxes, and Division of Motor Vehicle fees; these increases are sufficient to pay the debt from the bonds. The income from the sales of the bonds will be available for matching federal funds for highways and bridges. The maximum term of the bonds is 25 years. The last road bond amendment was the Safe Roads Amendment in 1996.

Several League members attended the County Commission Meeting on September 13, 2017 to hear a Department of Highways presentation about the Amendment. The presentation was given by Don Williams, District 4 Project Manager for DOH. He emphasized that there will be no additional fees or taxes as a result of passing the bond; the increases have been in place since July 1, and are being used for getting work done now.  Without passage of the bond, work will proceed at a slower pace, and will undoubtedly be more expensive because of increases in construction costs.  Bonds will not be sold until contracts are ready to be let. Projects have already been established and prioritized, and all 55 counties are included. There are numerous projects on the priority list for Mon County.  Candidate projects can be found at www.transportation.wv.gov 

A video of the Commission meeting can be found at https://youtu.be/Cm50z2-mRbA?t=1732 

The LWV of Morgantown does not have a position on the Road Bond amendment, but encourages everyone to vote. Remember, it is a Saturday Election! Early voting will take place at the Mountaineer Mall Sept 22 to October 4, Monday 9-7, Tues – Sat. 9-5.

Annual Meeting May 2017 

The Annual Meeting 2017 was held at Ali Baba’s Restaurant on Saturday, May 20, 2017. After the noon Luncheon, Shirley Rosenbaum introduced David Beard, reporter and editor at the Dominion Post, and presented him with the Democracy in Action Award for his thorough and knowledgeable reporting of the West Virginia legislature for the Dominion Post. Mr. Beard responded with remarks concerning his years as a reporter.

Jonathan Rosenbaum introduced the Guest Speaker, Bill Austin, Executive Director of the Morgantown-Monongalia Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Mr. Austin gave an overview of the MPO and current projects, and responded to numerous questions from league members.

Vicki Conner presented outgoing President Jonathan Rosenbaum with a gavel, with thanks from our league members for his two terms of exemplary leadership, and best wishes for his future as President of the State LWV.

Board Members elected for 2017-2019 are:

  • President Vicki Conner
  • 1st VP Nancy Jamison
  • Secretary Barbara Brown
  • Director Mitzi Martin
  • Director Jonathan Rosenbaum
  • Director Shirley Rosenbaum
  • Director (unexp. Term): Judith Wilkinson
  • Nominating Committee: Shirley Rosenbaum, Cynthia O’Brien, and Penny Thomas

Continuing Board Members (elected in 2016) are: Catherine Lozier, 2nd VP; Lyndell Millecchia, Treasurer; Marlene Frich, Director; and Barbara White, Director

Board Meetings Are Open, All Welcome

It was my honor to follow Jonathan Rosenbaum as President of the Board of Directors of LWVMM.  The Board continues to meet most months on the third Monday at 4:00 p.m. in the conference room at the Morgantown Public Library. These meetings are always open to interested League members and to members of the public, and we would welcome anyone to attend, whether to present an issue for discussion or to simply observe. Because of our Fall Membership Meeting, there will be no Board meeting in October. Since our November meeting falls during the Thanksgiving holiday, it will be moved to November 6 at 4:00 p.m. in the library.  Please feel free to call me to confirm meeting dates/times at 304-292-2640.  Vicki Conner

Observer Corps

One of the objectives of our league is to establish an Observer Corps of interested members who will attend City Council meetings (Morgantown, Star City, Granville, Westover, and beyond), County Commission and other entities.  With an eye to issues such as voting issues, social justice, natural resources, challenges for local government, education and transportation, members can simply note the topics, any areas of concern and local actions.

I have been attending Westover City Council meetings for a few months now and find them interesting and a way to be much more in touch with my particular community.  Westover meetings seldom go over 50 minutes.   I would like to hear from LWV members who might be interested in attending their own local and/or county meetings and then ask that you email me a monthly report on issues that the league might, in various ways, be able to address.

If you already attend these meetings or think you might be interested please let me know and I will add you to this committee. My plan, as chair of the Observer Corps is to, at least initially, keep this an email committee.  I believe that collection of ongoing issues can be done via email and I will communicate that way with you and will report our findings to the board for the “Corps”.

Barbara Brown
bjbrnwv@gmail.com

Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity

According to the LWV-US, the agenda of this commission is “part of a wider effort to suppress the vote, keep certain politicians in power and undermine our elections by spreading falsehoods about our election system. Politicians should not be putting up additional barriers that prevent people from voting. We should be addressing polling place closures, cuts to early voting and onerous voter ID laws. We should not have elected officials openly scheming to illegally purge registered voters or collect their personal information.” Hopefully we will be more aware of what is happening with the Advisory Commission after our meeting with Mr. Kersey.

Please plan to pay your dues when you come to the October meeting.

Currently dues are $48 for an individual, $72 for a household (two at the same address), and $24 for a student. Checks should be made to LWV Morgantown-Mon County. Dues may be mailed to: Lyndell Millecchia, Treasurer, 476 Lawnview Drive, Morgantown, WV 26505. You can also pay with your credit card at http://tinyurl.com/paylwvmm or you may send money from your PayPal account to: mmtreasury@lwvwv.org
Contributions are always welcome! (Contributions are not tax deductible.)

Read the complete newsletter here: LWVMM September 2017 Newsletter