Ethical questions follow Senator, lobbyist TV ad
A state senator has pulled a television advertisement for his business that featured a prominent lobbyist and footage shot at the state Capitol questions arose as to whether it was appropriate.
The ad - a testimonial from West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee for a car dealership owned by Sen. Bil Cole, R-Mercer - could violate state ethics laws.
While Lee and Cole both deny any political motivation or nefarious intent, they agree the ad and its timing weren't ideal.
"I think both of us wish we could do that over," Cole said Monday afternoon.
Cole, elected for the first time in 2012, pulled the ad at Lee's request after it ran for about two days. The Daily Mail obtained a copy of the ad, which appeared in the Charleston and southern West Virginia television markets.
The 30-second ad starts with text of Lee's name and his position with the WVEA - one of the state's largest teachers unions - in front of video of the state Capitol. Lee talks about his positive experiences with Cole's car dealership while music plays and footage of Lee driving around Charleston scrolls across the screen.
"It all come (sic) from the relationship that we've built with Bill," Lee says, with footage of Lee and Cole standing in a room in the state Capitol.
"Those relationships are what's the most important thing to me."
Cole and Lee have known each other for 14 years. Lee is a Mercer County native and coached Cole's son on the Bluefield High School golf team. Cole's son now works for the dealership and asked Lee to participate in the ad, Lee said.
At no point does the advertisement make any connection between Lee and Cole's son knowing each other, nor Lee's connection to Mercer County.
"I made an error in thinking that I could separate me the private citizen from me the public figure," Lee said.
West Virginia law says "a public official or public employee may not knowingly and intentionally use his or her office or the prestige of his or her office for his or her own private gain or that of another person."
Joan Parker, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, said she is not allowed to speak specifically about any potential complaint. She said she was familiar with the ad.
When asked about any previous commission decisions that could have addressed similar situations, she pointed to a 2005 ethics opinion involving a division director for a state agency that regulates motor vehicles. The director asked if there was an ethical problem with recording a radio testimonial for a car dealership he had purchased a vehicle from.
"If the requester was a private citizen, that would be acceptable," the opinion said. "However, due to the prestige and responsibilities of his position, he should not allow the use of his name or image for the proposed advertisements."
Parker said state law also prohibits any lobbyist giving a public official any gift, apart from food or drinks, that exceeds $25.
"How could the value not be more than $25?" Parker said, speaking in general about the value of an advertisement.
Both Lee and Cole said Lee did not receive any compensation for appearing in the ad.
"I don't think anybody gained in any particular way," Cole said.
The ad was shot in mid-February about three weeks before the end of the legislative session. Lee said they shot the ad in Charleston because that's where he works while the Legislature is in session.
Cole said he didn't know about the ad until he got a call from his son the day it was filmed.
"In retrospect, I certainly wish I would have stopped it once it had started," Cole said.
The portion shot in the Capitol shows the Senate reception room, an area between the Senate chambers and offices in the building's west wing. Large ropes and signs in the room leave only a path from the main Capitol building to the west wing through the middle of the room.
Cole said they stepped over the rope for a few minutes to shoot that portion.
Parker said there could be a question of whether a person's public office allowed access to areas not open to the general public.
Lee Cassis, assistant Senate clerk, said use of the room typically is limited to senators, although he couldn't immediately recall anyone who wasn't a senator requesting to use it. He was not aware of the ad.
Cole's business originally paid local NBC affiliate WSAZ $5,000 and CBS affiliate WOWK $3,000 to run the ad. Cole pulled it after it ran for two days on WSAZ, at a cost of $2,500, he said. The ad ran for one day on WOWK, at a price of $240, he said. He said the money came from his business.
Cole asked the stations to pull the ad at Lee's request, Lee said. Once people at the Capitol started asking questions, Lee said he realized he made a mistake.
"At that point I realized that in the political climate that we have right now, my timing was terrible," Lee said.
Lee is a Democrat and the WVEA endorsed Cole's opponent, former Mercer County Democrat Sen. Mark Wills, during the 2012 Senate campaign.
Cole said he felt bad for Lee, although it "might have been bad judgment on his part to offer to do it." He said any potential ethics issues didn't enter his mind until he was asked about the ad by the Daily Mail.
Cole said he understands if the Ethics Commission needs to look into the situation.
Cole owns dealerships in Bluefield, Princeton and Ashland, Ky.
Cole is not up for re-election until 2016. He said he didn't think there were any political ramifications from the ad.
In addition to his role in the Senate, Cole is also campaign chairman for state Sen. Evan Jenkins, R-Cabell, who switched parties last summer to challenge Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., for the 3rd Congressional District seat.
Groups supporting both Jenkins and Rahall have spent more than $1 million combined on television ads in the southern West Virginia district.
Cole said he didn't think the ad, which was set to air in many areas in the 3rd District, would affect the campaign. Cole also said he focuses mostly on state races and does not have day-to-day involvement in the Jenkins campaign.
In a statement from a campaign spokesman, Jenkins said southern West Virginia is lucky to have Cole and he's proud Cole is supporting his campaign.
The Ethics Commission regulates lobbyists and elected officials, Parker said. However, she said it would be "fair to say" the question has never formally gone before the commission as to whether a lobbyist could appear in an advertisement like this for a public official.