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Ethics Commission chairman to resign, lobby for tort reform


Publication: THE CHARLESTON GAZETTE
Published: Friday, September 05, 1997
Page: P8A
Byline: Phil Kabler

Lee Feinberg, the first and only chairman of the state Ethics Commission, will resign this week in order to lobby the Legislature for tort reform.

Feinberg, a Charleston lawyer and a member of the Ethics Commission from its inception in July 1989, will serve as co-director of the Alliance for Civil Justice Reform.

George Carenbauer, a Charleston lawyer and former state Democratic Party chairman, will also head the group.

During Thursday's commission meeting, Feinberg said he had decided to resign, since it would not be proper for him to be a registered lobbyist while serving on the commission. (Lobbyists are required to register and file periodic spending disclosures with the commission.) "I've come to grips with the fact that it would require my resignation from the commission," he said. "I don't like leaving with two years left on my second term, but what I will be doing is an important issue." The alliance's main focus will be passage of a sweeping person al-injury lawsuit reform bill that was introduced in the House last session but died.

That bill, sponsored by House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, and others, will be carried over to the 1998 session.

It calls for reforms to current law which, the bill says, "tolerates excessive, arbitrary and unpredictable punitive and non-economic loss awards." Among other measures, the bill would cap punitive damages at $250,000, and would limit the attorney's share of punitive damages to 10 percent.

Feinberg oversaw the commission from its days in 1989, when he said, "We started, more or less from the trunk of [executive director] Rick [Alker]'s car."' Said Feinberg, "I've never felt any decisions were made on a partisan basis, and I think we have been given in the past eight years complete independence from the executive branch, both from Gov. [Gaston] Caperton and the current administration." Fred Caplan, a retired state Supreme Court justice, will be acting commission chairman until a new chairman is elected, probably at the October meeting.

Also Thursday, the commission determined that it is improper for state employees to make personal telephone calls on state phones - even if they reimburse the state for the calls.

A state employee wanted to know if it would be proper to make personal long-distance calls on the state's Direct Access Intercity Network lines, if he kept a log of all calls and reimbursed the state.

The state phone system is considerably cheaper than most long-distance services. A call that would be $2.75 on a commercial long-distance provider would be 90 cents on DAIN, according to Bob Lamont, commission attorney.

The commission agreed, without debate, that the arrangement would be a violation, since public employees cannot use public office for private gain.

In previous decisions, the commission has ruled that state employees cannot use discounted government rates for lodging for personal travel, and rejected a request by state Parkways Authority officials to give employees a discount on purchases at Tamarack.

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