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House votes to require oath before committee testimonies

By PHIL KABLER

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With the voice-vote adoption of a House Resolution this week, the House of Delegates revived and expanded a rarely used 41-year-old rule allowing House committees to require persons appearing before them to be sworn in and testify under oath.

Unlike the 1976 House rule, which allowed committees to require persons to testify under oath if a majority of committee members determined that “special circumstances” required it, the new rule mandates that all persons appearing before committees must be sworn in before answering questions from committee members.

“We want to make sure all testimony before our committees is truthful and accurate, and placing those offering such testimony under oath — just as they do in Congress or our courts — will help ensure that,” said House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said in a statement.

The decision may stem from a legislative dispute in 2015 with one state agency.

In the summer of 2015, Armstead and then-Senate President Bill Cole threatened to subpoena WorkForce West Virginia employees and force them to testify under oath.

That was during an ongoing heated dispute between legislative leadership and the agency over its methods to recalculate the state’s prevailing wage rates.

Republican legislators objected to WorkForce West Virginia’s decision to conduct wage surveys of more than 5,000 contractors and subcontractors around the state to determine wage rates, saying that process was too similar to the previous method of calculating prevailing wage, which they contended resulted in overly inflated wage rates.

Legislative leaders also claimed that WorkForce West Virginia officials were working with “outside labor interests” to devise the new prevailing wage rate methodology, and accused them of withholding e-mails and other documents that purportedly showed they were working with labor.

On July 7, 2015, Armstead and Cole subpoenaed WorkForce West Virginia acting director Russell Fry, demanding documents supposedly being withheld from the Legislature.

 “If we do not receive a complete response to this subpoena, it will be necessary to issue additional subpoenas requiring your appearance and the appearance of other WorkForce West Virginia employees to testify under oath to the Joint Committee on Government and Finance,” Armstead and Cole advised Fry in a letter accompanying the subpoena.

Ultimately, no additional subpoenas were issued, and no WorkForce West Virginia officials were required to testify under oath.

While state law gives both House and Senate leadership subpoena power to compel individuals to appear before legislative committees, the authority is rarely used.

Prior to 2015, the last time the Legislature issued a subpoena was 1989, when then-Treasurer A. James Manchin said he would not turn over documents in his impeachment hearing without a subpoena.

Conversely, the Senate has no equivalent rule to require individuals to testify under oath.

House spokesman Jared Hunt said House leadership had been considering reviving the rule for some time and decided to “pull the trigger” at the start of the regular session.

The mandate does not apply to persons speaking at public hearings, he said.

Under state law, perjury — lying while under oath — is a felony punishable by one to 10 years in prison, although it is not clear how House leaders would pursue perjury charges.

See more from the Charleston Gazette-Mail

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