Any person may file a written verified complaint with the Ethics Commission. The complaint must be notarized. Complaints that are not notarized will not be accepted and will be returned to the sender. And the Commission itself may initiate a Complaint if it receives credible evidence of a material violation of the Ethics Act.
All complaints are initially evaluated by a three-member Probable Cause Review Board whose members are appointed by the Governor. The Review Board determines whether the allegations in the Complaint, if taken as true, state a material violation of the Ethics Act. Complaints which do not state a material violation of the Act are dismissed. A material violation is one which is not trivial or inconsequential. Also, the Act's statute of limitations provision provides that complaints must be filed within five years of an alleged Ethics Act violation.
If the allegations in the complaint are sufficient, they will be investigated. The Review Board has the authority to subpoena evidence and testimony, although no person alleged to have violated the Act is required to give testimony. If the investigation shows probable cause that a violation has occurred, the complaint will proceed to a public hearing.
A person found to have violated the Ethics Act may be publicly reprimanded, fined up to $5,000 per violation, ordered to pay restitution and/or ordered to reimburse the Commission for its costs of investigation and prosecution. The Commission also may recommend that the person be removed from office or terminate from public employment.
It is a violation of the Act to give false and misleading information to the Commission or to procure or induce another person to provide false information.
Frequently Asked Questions and Answers
Who can I file a complaint against?
You may file a Complaint only against elected and appointed public officials and public employees in state, county, and municipal governments and boards, agencies, departments, and commissions. Complaints may also be filed against “public servant volunteers,” which are persons who, without compensation, perform services on behalf of a public official and who are granted or vested with powers, privileges, or authorities ordinarily reserved to public officials.
What type of complaint does the Ethics Commission investigate?
It is common for the Ethics Commission to get complaints about conduct--or against people--the Commission is not authorized to investigate. As the Commission explained in Advisory Opinion 2013-02, “The Ethics Act is not a general code of conduct which prohibits public servants and public officials from engaging in any and all conduct which could be viewed as unethical. Instead, it establishes certain standards of conduct for public servants and public officials to follow to avoid a specific conflict of interest between their personal interests and the public good.” Our Ethics Act Brochure explains the specific conduct covered by the Act. Click here
to view the Brochure.
Let us explain why the Commission can’t investigate the following types of complaints:
The Ethics Act prohibits public officials and employees, including law enforcement officers, from using their public jobs for their private gain or the private gain of another person. Complaints about rude or unprofessional conduct, however, should be made to the law enforcement agency’s Professional Standards Unit, or a high-ranking officer in the department. Complaints about civil rights violations are handled in the state and federal courts. Private attorneys would be helpful in these matters. The West Virginia State Bar may help find a qualified attorney. WV State Bar Lawyer Referral
Campaigning for Public Office:
The Ethics Act does not apply to candidates running for public office. It applies to people currently holding public office and public employees. Complaints about the conduct of candidates for public office may be made to the Secretary of State’s Office, Elections Division. Elections/Campaigning Complaint
Private Legal Representation:
The Ethics Commission does not investigate complaints against private attorneys for bad legal representation or rude and unprofessional conduct. The Commission investigates certain conduct of public employees or officials in their public offices, not the conduct of attorneys providing private legal services. Even though court-appointed attorneys are paid by the State, they are private attorneys and not subject to the Ethics Act. Complaints against private attorneys may be made to the Office of Disciplinary Council, the state agency that enforces the lawyers’ codes of conduct. WV Office of Disciplinary Counsel
Judges’ Rulings and Conduct:
The Commission does not investigate complaints about the “correctness” of a judge’s ruling. These matters are handled through the courts’ appellate systems, nor does the Commission enforce the Code of Judicial Conduct. Complaints about rude or unprofessional conduct by judges may be made to the Judicial Investigation Commission. WV Judicial Investigation Commission
Employee Wages, Hours, Benefits:
The Ethics Commission does not investigate complaints regarding the wages, hours, or benefits of businesses, consumers, employees, and residents of West Virginia. For information, contact the West Virginia Division of Labor. WV Division of Labor
Open Meetings Violations:
The Commission is charged with interpreting the Open Meetings Act but not enforcing it. This, understandably, is confusing. Alleged violations should be filed, within 120 days, in the circuit court in the county where the conduct occurred.
Private businesses and Nonprofits:
The Ethics Commission does not investigate the conduct of owners or employees of private businesses or non-profit organizations because they are not public officials or employees. Complaints about consumers’ practices may be made to the Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General’s Office. WV Consumer Protection Private
attorneys may be helpful in these matters. The West Virginia State Bar may help find a qualified attorney. WV State Bar Lawyer Referral
How do I get a complaint form?
to download a Complaint form and instructions or call the Ethics Commission at (304) 558-0664 to obtain a paper copy or a copy by email.
Do you accept faxed or emailed complaints?
The Ethics Commission does not accept Complaints over the fax machine. It does accept Complaints which are signed and notarized, scanned, and emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org
. (Complaints also may be mailed to 210 Brooks Street, Suite 300, Charleston, WV 25301.)
Does the Complaint form need to be notarized?
Who will decide my Complaint?
Complaints are first reviewed by the Ethics Commission’s Probable Cause Review Board, which functions like a grand jury. The three members of this Board decide whether to dismiss the Complaint or to order that an investigation be conducted by the Ethics Commission attorneys. The Review Board initially determines whether the allegations in the Complaint, if taken as true, state a “material” violation of the Ethics Act. (A material violation is one which is not trivial or inconsequential.) If the Review Board finds that a Complaint states a material violation of the Act, it issues a Notice of Investigation and begins a confidential investigation of the allegations in the Complaint.
How often does the Review Board meet?
The Review Board meets in private session once a month. These meetings are not open to the public.
Will I be notified if my Complaint is dismissed?
Yes. If your Complaint is dismissed, a Dismissal Order will be mailed to you and to the person you filed the Complaint against. The Order will not describe the reasons for the dismissal. Dismissal Orders are not made public.
What happens if my Complaint is investigated?
Following the investigation, the Review Board will determine whether there is “probable cause” to believe that a material violation of the Ethics Act has occurred. If it finds that probable cause exists, it issues a “Probable Cause Order” and directs the staff to prepare a Statement of Charges and Notice of Hearing. This document is made public and placed on the Ethics Commission’s website.
If the Review Board finds that there is no probable cause to believe that a violation of the Ethics Act has occurred, the Complaint is dismissed.
Will my Complaint be public?
A Complaint is made public only if an order finding that there is probable cause to believe that a violation of the Ethics Act has occurred is entered.
If a Complaint is filed against me, when will I be told?
If the Review Board dismisses the Complaint, a copy of the Dismissal Order is sent to the person against whom the Complaint was filed. If the Review Board orders an investigation of the allegations in the Complaint, a Notice of Investigation will be sent to the person who filed the Complaint and the person against whom the Complaint was filed.
If a Complaint is filed against me, do I need to respond?
You are not required to respond, but may file a written response after you receive the Notice of Investigation. You also may appear before the Review Board and respond orally to the Complaint.
After a Statement of Charges and Notice of Hearing is issued, when will the hearing on the Complaint be held?
The Ethics Act requires that 80 days’ notice be given of a hearing on an ethics Complaint. The hearings are open to the public.
An independent hearing examiner presides at public hearings regarding ethics Complaints. The person against whom the Statement of Charges and Notice of Hearing is filed does not need to be represented by an attorney at the hearing, but may hire an attorney if he or she desires. A staff attorney for the Ethics Commission prosecutes Complaints.
If I filed a Complaint, will I have to appear at the hearing?
If the Ethics Commission attorney handling the Complaint believes that you are needed as a factual witness, you likely will be requested or subpoenaed to appear at the hearing.
What happens after the hearing is concluded?
After a hearing is concluded, the Ethics Commission attorney and the person against whom a Complaint was filed (or his/her attorney) submit proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law to the Hearing Examiner. The Hearing Examiner then submits recommended Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law to the Commission. A person against a Complaint is filed may present oral argument to the Commissioners at a public meeting. The Commission then issues a Final Decision and Order in the case at that meeting.
The Final Decision and Order may impose one or more of the following sanctions:
• A public reprimand;
• A cease and desist order;
• An order of restitution;
• Fines up to $5,000 per violation, and/or
• Reimbursement to the Commission for the actual costs of investigating
and prosecuting a violation.
Does the Ethics Commission have the power to remove an official from office?
No, but it may recommend to the appropriate governmental body that a public official or public employee be terminated from employment or removed from office.
Can a Complaint be settled?
Yes. A Conciliation Agreement is a written agreement between the Ethics Commission and the person against whom an ethics Complaint has been filed. It is the settlement of the charges against the person.
Will the Ethics Commission tell me if a Complaint has been filed against a public official or public employee?
No. The Ethics Commission, members of the Review Board and Ethics Commission staff members are not permitted to acknowledge the existence of a Complaint until (and unless) the Review Board has issued the “Probable Cause Order.”