(02/01/2005)
By Bob Weaver

At the mouth of the Elk, things are seldom as they seem to be.

While newly elected Joe Manchin has pushed some major legislation, there is a downside.

It is called "gagged."

Manchin told his department heads that they are not to talk to the media without going through his office, an obvious effort to control information that recalls the horrible administrative tactics employed by former Gov. Arch Moore.

Obtaining public information that should be readily available has been getting more difficult every year.

The Freedom of Information Act, which has little legal clout, is widely ignored by many agencies based upon the use of legal loopholes which end up saying, if you don't like our denial, sue us.

A simple effort to obtain road projects from the West Virginia Department of Highways in Calhoun caused concern that they might have to clear the information through Charleston.

The second is a gag rule with the highly touted new ethics law.

The new ethics effort seemed admirable, bringing new life to a watered-down system many of us have learned to love.

A last minute provision, apparently pushed through by Sen. Jeff Kessler, dumbed down the provisions by including a "gag order."

Legislators seemed to be worried that people talk too much about their ethics concerns, so they added a legal whammy.

If you filed an ethics complaint and told anyone, you could get fined $5,000.

WVU political science professor Bob Bastress said the recently passed ethics bill is unconstitutional because it violates the right to free speech,

Bastress told the Charleston Newspapers "It's blatantly unconstitutional. You can't have the person making the accusation being gagged, for heaven's sake. They have First Amendment rights."

The bill also would prohibit anyone else, including the news media, who has "knowledge that the [Ethics] Commission is undertaking an investigation" from revealing any facts about the investigation. There are no specific penalties spelled out in the bill for reporters, witnesses and other people who did not file a complaint but who violate the gag order, according to a news report.

Wanda Carney, co-director of the watchdog group West Virginia Wants to Know, said legislators were targeting her over filing changes against Jerry Mezzatesta and going public. "They didn't like that," she said.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler, who helped push the legislation, expressed concern over public information linked to ethics charges unduly harming elected officials like Mezzatesta or defeated Senator Mike Ross.

"If this isn't protecting the good old boys, I don't know what is," said Carney.

Kessler says an ethics complaint is a very serious matter and it should be kept under wraps while the investigation is taking place.

Kessler says the tendency is to try ethics cases in the press before there is a hearing on the merits of the case.

House Judiciary Chairman Jon Amores, D-Kanawha, defended the bill and said the gag order protects the integrity of investigations.

Gov. Joe Manchin said he was surprised that the gag-order language was added to his ethics bill.

He did not say whether he would sign the bill into law.


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