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Bill could end claims panel’s independence, clerk says


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A bill that would revamp the state Court of Claims into a legislative Claims Commission would jeopardize the independence and integrity of the panel, the longtime clerk of the court told Senate Judiciary Committee members Wednesday.

Under the proposed legislation (HB 2447), the Senate president and House speaker would have authority to act jointly to fire any member of the three-member panel “at any time.”

“The autonomy and independence of this body  is the only way to assure the integrity of every decision of this court,” said Cheryle Hall, who has been with the Court of Claims for 48 years of the agency’s 50-year history.

“These two lines could greatly affect the integrity of those decisions,” Hall said, referring to the portion of the bill that would give the president and speaker power to remove judges.

Under current law, the three-member court hears claims against state agencies for financial damages, and recommends awards to the injured parties, subject to final approval by the Legislature.

Hall said those claims can be significant, involving contracts with state agencies, wrongful death claims and claims involving serious personal injury.

The potential that members could be removed arbitrarily for any decision or vote on a claim “disturbs me greatly,” she said.

“What could be the reason for this other than to be able to influence decisions of the commission?” asked Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison. “We’re talking about terminating judges without cause in the middle of their terms,” he added.

Proponents of the bill cited a 2016 legislative audit that uncovered discrepancies in tracking payroll and leave time for Court of Claims employees that resulted in at least four employees getting paid for days not worked. Hall said at the time that problems raised in that audit regarding time sheets and leave time requests had been resolved.

Denny Rhodes, who conducted the audit, told committee members that giving the president and speaker power to fire Court of Claims judges would clarify that the agency operates under the authority of the Legislature.

“It would help the process, that it won’t happen again,” he said.

Committee members advanced the bill to the full Senate Wednesday, after rejecting an amendment by Romano to remove the termination authority.

Proponents of the bill said the name change would end confusion among members of the public, who assume the Court of Claims is part of the judicial branch of government, when it actually is a legislative agency.

Also Wednesday, Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, announced that he had temporarily removed from his committee’s agenda legislation to eliminate the state’s $15 million subsidy for greyhound racing purses, and to remove the requirement that the state’s two greyhound racetrack casinos offer live racing as a condition to maintain video lottery and table games licenses (SB 437).

Hall said there are issues with Racing Commission funding that need to be resolved before resuming consideration of the bill.

The commission, which regulates both thoroughbred and greyhound racing in the state, is funded through percentages of license fees and pari-mutuel wagers.

Hall said he anticipates the bill will be back on the agenda later this week or early next week.

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