The Ethics Commission investigates and resolves violations of the Ethics Act. Any person may file a written complaint, which must include a notary public’s signature.
The Commission itself may initiate a Complaint if it receives credible evidence of a material violation of the Ethics Act. All Complaints are considered by the three-member Probable Cause Review Board, which 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.) Those Complaints which do state a material violation are then investigated. Those which do not are dismissed.
Complaints which allege trivial or inconsequential violations or were filed outside of the statute of limitations are dismissed. The statute of limitations for alleged violations which occurred before July 1, 2016, is two years. For violations which occur on or after July 1, 2016, the statute of limitations is five years.
The Ethics Commission has the authority to subpoena evidence and testimony, although no person alleged to have violated the Act is required to give testimony. 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.
Persons 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 that his employment be terminated.
Frequently Asked Questions and Answers
Who can I file a complaint against?
You may file a Complaint only against individuals who are subject to the Ethics Act. Those individuals are elected and appointed full-time and part-time public officials and public employees in state, county and city governments and boards, agencies, departments and commissions which are part of those governments. Employees and officials of all other regional or local governmental agencies, and county school boards, are also subject to the Ethics Act. In addition, effective June 8, 2018, Complaints may 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.
How do I get a complaint form?
Go to https://ethics.wv.gov/Pages/forms.aspx 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 in blue ink, scanned and emailed as an email attachment to email@example.com. (Complaints also may be mailed to 210 Brooks Street, Suite 300, Charleston, WV 25301.)
Does the Complaint form need to be notarized?
What happens after I file a Complaint?
The Ethics Commission will send you a letter which lists the VCRB (Verified Complaint for the Review Board) number which has been assigned to your Complaint.
Do I have to hire an attorney to represent me if I file a Complaint?
No. The Commission’s staff attorneys will handle the Complaint after it is filed.
Can I file a Complaint against an attorney who is representing me?
No. The Office of Disciplinary Counsel handles complaints against private attorneys who you hired or who were appointed by a court to represent you. That office may be contacted at (304) 558-7999.
What if I file a Complaint and provide misleading or false information?
If a person files a Complaint or provides information which results in an investigation despite knowing that the information provided was not true, or if a Complaint was made or information provided in reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the statements, the Ethics Commission may require that person to reimburse the attorney’s fees and costs incurred by the person against whom the Complaint was filed. The Commission also may order the person who filed the false Complaint, or the person who provided false information, to reimburse the Commission for the costs of its investigation. It also may refuse to accept any more Complaints from that person.
Who will investigate my Complaint?
The Commission’s attorneys.
May I discuss my Complaint with others?
The Ethics Commission requests that you keep your Complaint confidential until you are notified otherwise.
Who will decide my Complaint?
All 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 as they are required to be at that stage of the proceedings, 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 would state 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.
If I file a Complaint, do I need to appear before the Review Board?
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?
When the staff attorney’s investigation is completed, the Review Board determines whether there is “probable cause” to believe that a 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 not 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. The Ethics Commission does not have the authority to remove someone from office, 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.”