West Virginia Ethics Commission members were right to overrule their paid staff and rule that House of Delegates Speaker Rick Thompson could not serve as an employee of the state's largest teachers' union without being involved in a conflict of interest.
But the panel's decision raises implications that ought to be followed up by the Legislature. Thompson, D-Wayne, asked the commission for an opinion on whether, as a lawyer, he could work for the West Virginia Education Association. His plan was to advise the union and represent its members, when necessary.
Ethics commission staff members decided Thompson could be an employee of the union, under certain provisions. Among them were that, as Speaker of the House, he could not sponsor legislation on pay raises for teachers and could not advise the WVEA on its legislative agenda or hiring of lobbyists.
But the commission's members, apparently better grounded in practical politics than their staff, rejected that advice. Thompson would have an "inescapable conflict" if he became an employee of the union, commissioners recognized.
Of course he would - but no more than some other lawmakers whose work in Charleston sometimes benefits or harms their employers. Conflicts of interest, some of them blatant, are not at all rare under the Capitol Dome.
Commissioners took a more realistic view than their staff on whether officially insulating Thompson from some WVEA-related issues was enough. He is Speaker of the House, for heaven's sake. Many of its members, particularly those in the Democrat Party caucus, will do what they think he wants, even if he doesn't tell them. Had Thompson become a paid staffer for the union, what he wanted would have been obvious.
And because some special interests make hefty campaign contributions to lawmakers, what the legislators want often is clear.
In recognizing how conflicts of interest can be manifested in subtle ways, the Ethics Commission made plain what many West Virginians have known for decades. The question now is whether the Legislature itself will take its cue to end such conflicts.
While Thompson did seek the commission's opinion on this matter, it is likely he saw no problem with the situation. So, the answer is probably not - simply because such action would involve indirectly biting the special interest hands that feed so many politicians in our state.