“This bill is a little inside baseball to practitioners of environmental law in
It wasn’t the first time that Hanshaw engaged in some pretty effective legislative inside baseball on energy bills.
Last year, Hanshaw engineered passage of a bill that gave natural gas companies a broad exemption from chemical tank safety standards that
Hanshaw was elected speaker in late August, succeeding
When he’s not in the state
Over the last three years, he has represented the operator of a
Under the state’s ethics laws, those overlapping interests aren’t enough to keep Hanshaw from voting on matters affecting the industry, including the bill to help stop coal-funded legal challenges to power plants.
Legislative controversies over natural gas have grown in recent years as the industry’s production has greatly expanded. Hanshaw illustrates both the industry’s growing ties to lawmakers and how
In February, for instance, more than a dozen delegates were ordered to vote on a bill to make it easier for gas companies to assemble larger mineral tracts for drilling, despite asking to be excused because of potential conflicts. One of those lawmakers is the in-house counsel for a gas company.
A ProPublica and Charleston Gazette-Mail review found that over the past five years, the House speaker approved just 14 of 245 delegate recusal requests, a rejection rate of 94 percent.
Hanshaw’s financial disclosure, filed with the state
Hanshaw says he’s able to separate his legal practice from his work as a lawmaker, even when the interests overlap. In an interview in mid-November in his
“I represent whoever comes through the door.”
—-Hanshaw isn’t the only legislator with experience in
Palumbo has litigated against landowners on behalf of gas producers, work that drew attention two years ago when he was the co-sponsor of an unsuccessful bill to make it harder for residents to sue gas companies for damaging their property.
Palumbo said recently that he doesn’t remember a lot of the details of that legislation or exactly how he came to co-sponsor it. But he said that he represents a wide range of businesses in litigation, and that gas companies make up less than half of his practice.
“Everyone is sort of shaped by who they are and what they do,” Palumbo said. “I’m someone who represents business, and that shapes my views sometimes.”
Palumbo said he doesn’t make legislative decisions based on what would make businesses, including his clients, happy. “I just try to do what’s right,” he said.
More than a dozen lawmakers who served during the 2018 regular session listed some financial connection to the gas industry on their annual disclosure forms filed with the state
So should those lawmakers be voting on gas industry legislation?
“I think the obvious answer to your question is no; legislators shouldn’t be voting on issues that affect their own business interests,” said
Part of the issue is that
One major strength of such arrangements is that members with different backgrounds can use their varying areas of expertise and experiences to help educate colleagues as they go through the process of making laws.
For example, Democratic state Sen.
Yet, Romano says he sees a clear problem with lawmakers who work in the gas industry voting on legislation that affects that industry. “That presents a clear conflict of interest,” he said.
Some conflicts, though, aren’t even disclosed. Lawmakers who are lawyers like Hanshaw don’t have to disclose their clients, even if they represent parties that have vested interests in the outcomes of particular bills. The state
Romano and Palumbo both said they believe requiring some kind of disclosure, such as general practice area or large clients, would be a good idea. “The more people know, the better choices they can make at the ballot box,” Romano said.
In written responses to questions from the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica, Hanshaw initially dismissed the idea, saying forcing lawyers to identify clients would violate legal ethics rules.
In the mid-November interview, however, Hanshaw conceded that some types of information about clients, such as when lawyers handle litigation, are a matter of public record that could be disclosed in Ethics Commissions filings. He said there are ways to let the public know what kind of law an attorney practices and generally what kinds of clients attorney-legislators have.
Hanshaw said that West Virginians have “a heightened interest” in government ethics rules this year in the wake of a spending scandal that prompted the impeachment of four state Supreme Court justices and the resignation of the fifth. (Two of the justices remain on the court.)
—-More than four decades ago, lawmakers in the
In 1975, House members approved Rule 49, which said that any member “with a personal or private interest” in a bill was required to announce that interest and not vote.
Two years later, though, legislators watered the rule down. Instead of prohibiting members from voting on matters in which they had an interest, they would be told not to vote only if the matter affected them “directly and not as one of a class.”
In 2017, the rule was amended to define a class as five or more similarly situated people.
The way the rule has been interpreted in recent years, delegates are seldom ever excused from voting.
Take, for example, the February vote on the bill to make it easier for gas companies to force unwilling gas owners to allow drilling on their property.
More than a dozen House members said they had a conflict and asked to be excused from voting.
Then-Speaker Armstead, R-
A parade of other delegates followed with their own requests not to vote.
Some were like Shott. They owned some small piece of a natural gas tract that might be made more accessible to drilling if the bill passed. Some had existing gas leases they felt might become more lucrative.
Others, like Capito, worked directly for a gas company. Capito said he always asks for a Rule 49 exemption from voting on oil and gas bills “in an abundance of caution.”
Armstead made them all vote. The bill passed on a 60-40 vote. The 20-vote margin meant recusals wouldn’t have swayed things either way. Some of those who asked to be excused voted against the bill, while some voted for it.
Hanshaw was not among those who asked for a Rule 49 exemption, because he said he did not believe his legal work for the gas industry was a conflict with that bill. He voted for the bill.
As the natural gas bill illustrates, Rule 49 seldom results in members not voting on legislation where they may have a conflict of interest.
“It’s rare,” House Clerk
A bill that affects only a business owned by a delegate would be an example of a conflict that qualifies for being excused from voting, Harrison said.
She thinks the system needs to be changed.
“The issue seems magnified in
—-Just as Hanshaw is not the only
Commissioners examined the issue in 2012, when then-Speaker
This arrangement was too much, as far as the commissioners were concerned. They said it presented an “inescapable conflict” for a House speaker to also work for a lobbying group. They also ruled that, because Thompson had been speaker for several years at that point, the job offer might appear to the public like the association was hiring him “because of his unique ability to influence legislation.”
Hanshaw says his situation is distinct from Thompson’s and more closely mirrors that of Armstead, his predecessor.
Armstead had been a House member since 1998 when, in 2014, the
Ethics commissioners said Armstead could continue to be speaker and hold his job because he had held the gas company job for more than a dozen years.
“That is me,” Hanshaw said. “I was a lawyer at our firm before I was ever elected to the House at all.”
—-With a doctorate in chemistry from Notre Dame, experience litigating over environmental issues and certification as a parliamentarian, Hanshaw has a leg up on many citizen legislators in navigating the lawmaking system. Like Romano’s inside knowledge of the gas business, Hanshaw said his experience can help on issues involving science or regulatory matters.
In 2014, the year Hanshaw was elected to the House, a chemical storage tank just upstream from the regional drinking water intake in
Starting in 2015, as the water crisis faded, various industry groups tried to have the law revisited. The state’s growing oil and gas industry complained the loudest.
In 2017, Hanshaw introduced a bill to give oil and gas operations a broad exemption from the bill.
After the bill passed, Hanshaw was one of three lawmakers honored as “Champions of Industry” by the
In an interview, Hanshaw said he introduced the bill because three small oil and gas companies in his district raised concerns about the chemical tank regulations.
None of the companies was a client, Hanshaw said. And even if they had been, he said, he doesn’t get into discussions with clients about legislation that might help them.
“I don’t let people come in here and talk about business,” he said. “And I don’t let people come to my daytime job and talk about the Legislature.”
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