Finding cushy employment opportunities for former state senators may not always work out.
In the case of former Democrat State Senator John Unger, 52, of Berkeley County, a Republican county chair and activist is questioning the senator’s appointment as a magistrate.
Wood County Republican Chair Rob Cornelius has suggested in a letter that Unger’s appointment is actually illegal.
Cornelius sent the letter September 29 to the Chief Judge of the 23rd Judicial Circuit, the Berkeley County Prosecutor’s office, the state Judicial Investigation Commission and the state Supreme Court. In it, he claims that Unger is “legally unable to be appointed or serve as a Magistrate.”
Cornelius’ argument centers around a provision of state law that essentially prevents an office holder from setting his or her own salary.
Cornelius points out in the letter that Unger represented the 16th District (Jefferson and Berkeley counties) for more than 20 years. In August, Unger resigned the Senate position to accept appointment by 23d Circuit Chief Judge Michael Lorensen as Berkeley County Magistrate. He assumed his new position on August 21.
The Wood Countian maintains the appointment is illegal.
“No senator or delegate, during the term for which he shall have been elected, shall be elected or appointed to any civil office of profit under this state, which has been created, or the emoluments of which have been increased during such term, except offices to be filled by election by the people,” Cornelius quotes the law.
In simple prose, the law says a person cannot be appointed to a job where he or she has voted to increase the pay for that position during the current term.
Cornelius says Unger did that.
The ex-senator was elected to a four-year term in 2018. He sponsored and voted for Senate Bill 597, which raised the pay for magistrates effective July 1, 2021. The bill was passed by both houses and signed into law.
“By virtue of having voted for this pay increase, Unger is prohibited from serving as a magistrate anywhere in West Virginia until the end of the full term to which he was elected in November of 2018,” Cornelius writes.
Cornelius goes on to point out that Unger voted for another bill that would have added additional magistrate position in Berkeley County, but it failed to pass the House.
“One could question the ethics of both raising magistrate salaries and voting to create a new position that he apparently believed himself eligible for in his home county. Struck me a bit odd,” Cornelius says.
The letter goes on to narrate a 1999 Supreme Court case in which then-Governor Cecil Underwood attempted to appoint then-House Speaker Bob Kiss to the Supreme Court.
Kiss had voted to raise salaries of justices in that same term and was deemed ineligible. An advisory opinion from the court stopped that proposed appointment in its tracks.
“Justice Warren McGraw’s majority opinion stated that no member of the Legislature could accept any state government appointment during their current fully elected term for which they had raised compensation,” Cornelius writes.
The county chair then questions where or how to file a complaint concerning Unger’s appointment.
“Who has standing?” he writes. “Who knows? But, this act of violating the Constitution apparently occurred in plain sight in Berkeley County.
“Who is at fault? Unger for knowing better … or was this an act of fraud? Does the local circuit have a duty to discern the eligibility of Unger?”
The West Virginia Record, in reporting on Cornelius’ letter, notes a pertinent part of the constitution that was added after the Kids case in 2006.
That addition says any challenge to a magistrate appointment must be made within 20 days of the appointment.
In addressing all those to whom he addressed his letter, Cornelius writes, “It is my hope that you can collectively take the steps needed to correct this illegal appointment and enrichment of a former elected official. Clearly, if he is serving in violation of law, the risk to the propriety of cases he has heard or will hear is obvious.
“If nothing else, my goal is to save the taxpayers from any stacks of appeals that could spawn from the preventable presence of an ineligible magistrate.”
We’ll watch to see where this goes.
* * * * * *
The state is fortunate to have watchdogs such as Cornelius, who routinely discovers public officials violating or skirting the law.
He is the legitimate Chair of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee. He was elected to that position by fellow committee members.
Former state GOP Chair Melody Potter “removed” him from the position in 2019. Most of us believe Potter overstepped her authority and Cornelius remains the county chair in exile. Cornelius filed a complaint and petition for a writ of mandamus over the alleged removal. That case is apparently destined to drag on forever in Kanawha Circuit Court. The wheels of justice turn slowly — if at all.
Here’s hoping it is resolved before an entirely new slate of committee members is elected.
* * * * * *
When asked by a Kanawha County Republican legislator, I had to respond that Democrats were traditionally more transparent with redistricting than Republicans have been this year.
Maps, if one can actually call them that, of proposed new districts were difficult if not impossible to comprehend. Democrats did put street names and geographical features like rivers in theirs. Republicans did not, but suggested that one could take their “PDFs (?) and go to Google Earth (??) and overlay (???) them and you’ve it all right there.”
The average West Virginia voter is not a high tech guru. In all the years Democrats had Jo Vaughan in charge of maps, one did not have to be a techie to have any idea what was being proposed.
I’m not really impressed by the number of “public hearings” Republicans had on their “statewide listening your” when the end result was to hide their proposals from that same public they were so interested in having involved.