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West Virginia House leaders back bill amending Ethics Act to include volunteers

By JAKE ZUCKERMAN

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Leaders from both parties in the West Virginia House of Delegates are backing legislation to counter Gov. Jim Justice’s decision to bring on a sitting board member of EQT Corp., a publicly traded natural gas driller, onto his senior staff as a volunteer.

House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said Thursday he would support changes to the state Ethics Act to include people in unpaid roles, such as A. Bray Cary Jr.

House Speaker Tim Armstead
“If a person is acting in a capacity like that of a full-time employee, and has similar access and input on policy issues to that of a staff member, then they should be held the same high standards of ethics,” Armstead said in a written statement. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect those acting in such roles to comply with the same requirements as an employee.

“Along those lines, we certainly will review our Ethics Act to determine what changes may be needed to accomplish that goal,” Armstead said.

In an interview Tuesday, House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said he has talked with several delegates interested in putting a bill together that would amend the Ethics Act, expanding it to cover official volunteers — such as Cary — along with government employees and public officials.

The Gazette-Mail reported Sunday that Cary began working for the governor as a “citizen volunteer” and “special assistant,” sitting in on policy meetings that could pit his corporate interests against the state’s.

“Why should the distinction be made? Why should your being subjected to state ethics laws rise or fall depending on whether you’re getting paid?” Miley said. “It should rise or fall on what influence and accessibility you have to state information, much of which might be extremely confidential.”

With his new position, Cary has an access card that lets him roam the Capitol Complex at all hours.

Bray Cary

According to Rebecca Stepto, executive director of the West Virginia Ethics Commission, the Ethics Act does not apply to Cary in his current role, per her staff’s opinion. The Ethics Act prevents government employees from using their official positions for personal enrichment, among other provisions.

Cary did not respond to multiple phone calls for this report.

Along with his board seat, Cary directly owns 28,000 shares in EQT that he purchased in June for roughly $1.5 million. He indirectly owns more than 13,800. He received more than $325,000 in cash and shares from the company in 2016.

Natalie Cox, corporate director of communications for EQT, sidestepped questions regarding what happens when Cary’s fiduciary responsibilities as a board member conflict with his governmental responsibilities, given that he recently said his loyalty is with the state.

“As we have previously stated, this volunteer work for the state does not conflict with Mr. Cary’s duties as a member of EQT’s board of directors — and we applaud him for volunteering his valuable time to help move West Virginia forward,” she said.

Along with Miley and Armstead, Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said he thinks Cary should be subject to the Ethics Act.

He said legislation that could affect the natural gas industry is likely to return this year, including “forced pooling” or lease integration, joint development or co-tenancy bills, that could compel landowners to allow drilling on their property.

“My limited association with Bray Cary has been that he puts a high priority on making money,” Prezioso said. “He’s got a proven track record that he can make money; I would question where his loyalties lie.”

Cary is a longtime television executive and founder of West Virginia Media Holdings, which owned The State Journal, a weekly publication, and WOWK-TV, as well as three other West Virginia television stations. Cary’s company sold the TV stations in 2015 and The State Journal in 2016.

“I mean, if you’re going to work for the governor, whether you’re getting paid or serve as a consultant, I think that you ought to fill out an ethics report. I would support that,” Prezioso said. “That doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Prezioso said he would not go so far as to say Cary must step down from either public service or his corporate position, but he needs to fill out an ethics disclosure so the public knows where his financial interests lie.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said he sees no conflict between Cary’s role with Justice coupled with his EQT board seat.

“I have zero concern about that, I think. And this is just my opinion, I think it’s the most ridiculous scenario for people to make an issue out of this,” Carmichael said.

While Carmichael said he would need to see a final piece of legislation before making up his mind, he generally opposes the idea of expanding the Ethics Act. He said it would rope in too many people and cause a number of unintended consequences.

He said he thinks anyone in public office should be able to reach out to the private sector for counsel and that the controversy around Cary is just retribution from the Democratic Party.

“Honest to God, it does seem to be just like a witch hunt,” Carmichael said.

Earlier this week, the state Democratic Party called on Cary to address allegations in a lawsuit a nurse filed against him in 2014 in Kanawha Circuit Court. The nurse, Melinda Heiss, claimed that Cary attacked her while she administered a physical examination, refused to let her leave until she returned a blood sample she had drawn from him and returned from giving a urine sample “with his trousers visibly unzipped and was very rude and insulting.”

The lawsuit was settled privately in 2015, after Cary had previously offered a $10,000 settlement that was not accepted, according to court records.

“If Cary is working in the Capitol every day next to state workers and walking the halls near visitors to the Capitol, we need to know if there is a chance he’ll go around pulling people’s hair with his trousers unzipped,” state Democratic Chairwoman Belinda Biafore said in a statement. “These allegations are not to be taken lightly and those working with Cary and those around him need to feel safe, not uneasy or threatened.”

Reach Jake Zuckerman at [email protected], 304-348-4814 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.

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