By Bob Weaver

West Virginia's grade in the 2015 edition of the Center for Public Integrity's State Integrity Investigation dropped from a D-plus to a D related to the availability of public information.

Despite the initial passage of expansive sunshine laws, WV has regressed with numerous exemption rulings or creating difficult and problematic systems to obtain public information that agencies say meets the open government requirements.

Most states scored dismally when it came to open and transparent government.

The assessment of government transparency and accountability gave failing grades to 11 states, while only three states earned higher than D-plus. Alaska topped the list with a grade of C.

A summary of the investigation notes, "In state after state, open records laws are laced with exemptions, and part-time legislators and agency officials engage in glaring conflicts of interests and cozy relationships with lobbyists. Meanwhile, feckless, understaffed watchdogs struggle to enforce laws as porous as honeycombs."

Citing federal court decisions that prevent the secretary of state's office from enforcing contribution limits to independent political groups, the investigation's summary for West Virginia states, "This new reality, combined with the state's weak open record laws, has resulted in West Virginia earning an overall grade of D.

The study gave West Virginia failing grades for Public Access to Information, citing a lack of any appeals process for Freedom of Information request denials short of filing civil suit in circuit court.

In other words, there is no enforcement clout.

WV got a D-minus for Civil Service Management, D for Procurement, D-plus for Lobbying Disclosure, and for Ethics Enforcement Agencies, C-minus for Executive Accountability and Legislative Accountability, C for State Budget Processes, C-plus for Internal Auditing and a B-plus for State Pension Fund Management.

The report notes, "In the past few years, though, there have been some significant improvements in West Virginia on the accountability front. In 2014, the state Ethics Commission began conducting random audits of lobbyist spending reports for the first time since 2011."

However, it faults a lack of improvement since there was only one investigation released in 2012, regarding access to public information.

West Virginia has no agency capable of enforcing its Freedom of Information Act, and there's no way to appeal a rejection short of going to court.

The Charleston Gazette was forced to sue the state attorney general's office after it refused to produce records related to a potential conflict of interest for the attorney general, whose wife was lobbying for a pharmaceutical company that the state was suing.

In September, a state judge ruled that the attorney general did not have to turn over the records.

The Gazette did win a WV Supreme Court case against the WV State Police in 2014 for declining to provide public information regarding troopers who got in trouble, and were fired or resigned.

The court gave some specific stipulations regarding their secret disciplinary actions, but so far the Gazette has not published and sunshined.

WV is a state that State Police internally review and decide police problems with no civilian review, long fighting such change.

In state ethics law, the investigation faults the state's failure to require lobbyists to disclosure their salaries or compensation, as well as the Ethics Commission's inability to post lobbyists' financial disclosures, and disclosures for many public officials and candidates, on-line on the commission's website.

The WV Magistrate Court system implemented a new system that is convoluted to easily access information about criminal complaints filed unless there is knowledge about the class, requiring a person to go in person to a public information computer in a clerks office, using a pencil and paper.

The court's official public relations attorney advised the Herald they're happy with their new system, suggesting that reporters whine too much and are often lazy.

Then the state regional jails websites have been discombobulated since last summer, often not providing what an inmate is charged with, requiring a scrambled coded word or number to access the information, an action they took to prevent wrongdoing websites from securing the information.

The site has said for months the problem is being corrected.

From a public information standpoint, it would seem important for citizens to be aware of crimes committed in their communities.

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