POLITICS
08/28/2015 03:20 pm ET

West Virginia Considers Big Step To Crack Down On Corruption

A state inspector general's office could disrupt the longstanding culture of corruption.

WASHINGTON -- West Virginia lawmakers will begin talks next month about establishing an independent state inspector general's office tasked with coordinating investigations into corruption, waste and fraud across state agencies. The new office would be modeled partly on successful examples of IG offices in other states, including Virginia, Louisiana, Indiana and Ohio.

“We’re trying to do all we can do to try to eliminate waste and fraud and corruption -- and to make sure we have the adequate tools to do that,” Delegate John Shott (R) told the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which first reported the talks.

West Virginia has long been a hotbed for political corruption, a place where Democrats far outnumber Republicans and power is concentrated among wealthy families with ties to the coal industry. In 2013, a widespread corruption scandal in Mingo County brought down a powerful judge, a prosecutor, a county commissioner and a magistrate. The following year, a Division of Highways supervisor pleaded guilty to misusing state resources, and a sheriff was sentenced to prison for insurance fraud.

Still, the state falls squarely in the middle of the pack on national rankings of statewide corruption risk. According to the State Integrity Investigation, a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity, West Virginia ranks 29th out of 50 states on its "Corruption Risk Report Card." The watchdog group awarded the state's procurement and internal auditing systems a letter grade of "A," but its lobbying disclosure, civil service management and public access to information merited "F" grades, based on multiple evaluation metrics.

“Public confidence in government and governmental institutions is lower than it should be," state Sen. Charles Trump (R) told the Gazette-Mail. "We want to give consideration to measures ... that will enhance public confidence in the institutions of government.”

Legislative staffers are currently researching how other states structure their IG offices, and so far they've discovered some best practices they will likely seek to incorporate into any proposals this fall.

Among them are requiring that the state Senate approve gubernatorial appointments for state inspector general, and requiring that each newly elected governor wait at least two years into his or her term before replacing a sitting IG.

Should the state legislature approve a bill to create the independent IG's office when it meets early next year, West Virginia would become the 14th state to create such a position.

In other states, independent IG offices have helped state governments identify millions of dollars in wasted taxpayer funds, both via questionable contracting and individual efforts to defraud the state. In Ohio, investigations launched by the inspector general have targeted agencies ranging from the state lottery commission to the Department of Corrections to the Department of Natural Resources, with some resulting in indictments.

Earlier this month, former Ohio Lottery Commission employee David Dragelevich pleaded guilty to stealing more than $100,000 in lottery tickets he was supposed to be selling, concluding an investigation that had begun with a complaint.

In Virginia, the independent inspector general's office fields a dedicated tip line, where citizens can report waste and fraud in state government. In fiscal year 2014, the Virginia IG hotline fielded 1,340 calls that led to more than 570 formal investigations.

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