State Ethics Commission chides Gainer over ad
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The state Ethics Commission ruled Thursday that state Auditor Glen Gainer should not have appeared in an online Visa advertising campaign and may have violated the state Ethics Act's prohibition against using public office for private gain.
During their regular meeting Thursday morning, commissioners approved an advisory opinion that said state officials cannot appear in videos on a private company's website promoting programs related to their state office.
Gainer sought the advisory opinion after questions were raised about his appearance, and the appearances of four other state agency officials, violated state ethics rules.
The Ethics Commission ruled last August that public officials and employees cannot appear or be referenced in an advertisement for a product, service or business unless there is an "overriding public benefit."
The appearances by Gainer and the other were a part of an online video series promoting Visa's purchasing card program.
Gainer's office manages the program for the state. It has a $432 million contract with Visa to run the program.
Neither Gainer nor the others were compensated for their appearances in the ads, which appeared online during late 2012 through February of this year. Gainer requested the ads be pulled after ethics questions arose.
During the ads, Gainer and officials spoke about how the purchasing card program boosted efficiency and helped save the state money.
Gainer's ad also showed the state Capitol, state flag, Gainer's office and an election campaign button bearing Gainer's name.
In its opinion, the commission said Gainer can appear in videos promoting purchasing card program, so long as it's done on his official website and does not visually or verbally reference Visa.
"Indeed, he has every right to be proud of (the purchasing card program's) success and national recognition, and the public benefits by this successful program," the opinion stated.
"Here, however, in the course of promoting his office's electronic payment program, he lends the prestige of his public position to a private business for which there is no overriding public benefit."
The commission said that even though Gainer did not get paid for appearing in the videos, he still might have violated the Ethics Act's prohibition against using public office for private gain by appearing in the video during a contested election campaign.
Gainer defeated Republican Larry Faircloth, an Eastern Panhandle resident, by a 57 to 43 percent margin in November's general election.
Since the video was online during the campaign, the commission said it offered Gainer a potential advantage.
"Although it may not be possible to quantify the benefit that may have inured him as a result of this publicity, it is an intrinsic benefit that his opponent did not have access to during the campaign," the opinion said.
But since advisory opinions from the Ethics Commission are only concerned with conduct that may occur in the future, the commission said it "is unable to opine as to whether (Gainer) used his public office for private gain."
In a brief statement, Auditor's office spokesman Justin Southern said Gainer intends to abide by the commission's decision going forward.
"We respect the Ethics Commission's opinion, and will follow its advice," Southern said.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4836.