Assessor apologizes for ethics violations


Zickefoose exits real estate business after reaching agreement with Ethics Commission

BUCKHANNON — The Upshur County assessor issued a public apology Monday after reaching an agreement with the state Ethics Commission in which he admits he violated the West Virginia Governmental Ethics Act by continuing to sell real estate while also serving as county assessor.

Dustin Zickefoose told The Record Delta Monday he has worked part-time as a real estate agent for about eight years and said he had no idea he was violating an Ethics Act provision by continuing that practice after his election. He said he even made a call to the ethics commission in December 2015 to check into whether he could continue to buy or sell property in the county, should he be elected assessor.

“I did not know I was doing anything wrong,” Zickefoose said. “It’s not something I was trying to keep a secret. People have even asked me since I took office if I was [still involved in the real estate business], and I told them yes. It’s not something I’ve tried to hide.”

In a written statement, Zickefoose issued a formal apology, saying he’d initially been contacted by an Ethic Commission representative on April 4 regarding a potential conflict of interest.

“It was brought to my attention on April 4, 2018, that an outside endeavor I was involved in could potentially be a conflict of interest with my duties as assessor,” the statement reads. “On Dec. 23, 2015, prior to my filing for candidacy, I reached out to the W.Va. Ethics Commission to obtain information as to whether my involvement in real estate sales and real estate appraisal were a conflict with the position of county assessor. During that phone call, I was informed that I could not appraise property in the county in which I hold office.”

However, Zickefoose said he had, at the time, been informed that it was permissible for him to continue engaging in real estate sales.

“I was also told that real estate sales did not pose a conflict,” his statement says. “Upon my election and start date of Jan. 1, 2017, I have honored the guidance obtained from the phone calls. I have had involvement in four real estate transactions since Jan. 1, 2017. In no way has this outside endeavor involved county funds or had any influence on the Upshur County Assessor’s Office.”

In the agreement with the ethics commission, Zickefoose acknowledges that the real estates sales did violate a section of the Ethics Act, which states that no public official or full-time public employee “may … seek to purchase, sell or lease real or personal property to or from anyone” on which that public official or one of his or her employees took regulatory action within the past year, or anyone “who has a matter before the agency on which he or she (the assessor)” on which he or she or one of his or her employees is working.

Essentially, the rule means that because Zickefoose, as the county assessor, has regulatory power over every property owner in the county, that makes him ineligible to buy or sell property from a county property owner.

The West Virginia Ethics Commission on Thursday filed an order imposing sanctions upon Zickefoose that he and a representative of the commission had agreed upon, according to the pre-complaint conciliation agreement available on the commission’s website. Among the sanctions are an order to immediately “cease and desist” acting as a real estate agent and the imposition of a $1,500 fine.

In the agreement — dated June 1 — Zickefoose acknowledges that he continued to serve as a real estate agent through Upshur Agency Inc. and its subsidiary, Century 21 Country Roads Realty, for four real estate transactions in Upshur County after he had assumed office Jan. 1, 2017.

Zickefoose assured county residents that his inadvertent actions did not affect his role as assessor.

“I have not, and would never, use my position as assessor for personal gain,” his statement reads. “I have worked hard to obtain and maintain public trust as county assessor … Please accept this is a formal apology for this violation. I maintain an open-door policy and will continue to perform my duties as assessor to the best of my ability. I look forward to serving Upshur County for years to come and plan on running for re-election in 2020.”

When contacted by The Record Delta, Ethics Commission executive director Rebecca Stepto declined to comment on the case, saying staff are not permitted to discuss conciliatory agreements.

At its Thursday, July 12 meeting, the Ethics Commission formally accepted the agreement and imposed sanctions on Zickefoose, according to a copy of the final order available on the commission’s website.

The order mandates that Zickefoose pay a $1,500 fine by Sept. 1; immediately stop working as independent contractor or in any other capacity for Upshur Agency Inc.; receive a public reprimand; and undergo an online training available on the Ethics Commission’s website before Aug. 1.

Zickefoose, who first earned his real estate license in April 2010, said he had immediately changed its status to inactive upon learning he could be in violation of the Ethics Act. He’s also already completed the online training and had a check ready to mail to the commission on his desk Monday.

The pre-conciliation agreement notes Zickefoose “fully cooperated” with the commission during its investigation, and the assessor said staff attorney Theresa Kirk, with whom he worked, had made a note of his Dec. 23, 2015 phone call regarding real estate sales.

Zickefoose has only ever worked as a real estate agent on a part-time basis, he said. He worked for Corhart Refractories until 2014, when he began appraising real estate full time. Properties involved in the complaint include three for which Zickefoose was the listing agent: 92 Evergreen Estates, 123 South Kanawha St. and 91 Professional Arts Plaza, and one for which he was the buyer’s agent: 52 Phillips Dairy Road.

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