Auditor to seek opinion on Visa endorsements
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Auditor Glen Gainer's office plans to ask the state Ethics Commission for a formal advisory opinion on whether his appearance in a Visa online advertising campaign violated the state's ethics law.
Gainer and four other state agency administrators appear in online videos promoting Visa's purchasing card program. Gainer's office manages the program for state government, which has a $432 million purchasing card contract with Visa.
The officials say they received no compensation to appear in the ads.
In the ads, the officials talk mostly about how the purchasing card program saves money. They seldom mention Visa by name.
"The State Auditor's Office believes in maintaining the highest ethical standard," Justin Southern, a spokesman for Gainer, told the Charleston Gazette, which had questioned Gainer's appearance in the ads. "Although we believe that no violation has been made, our office will request an opinion by the Ethics Commission, and ask that the West Virginia purchasing card information be taken down pending that decision."
Ethics Commission Executive Director Theresa Kirk said the commission cannot confirm or deny whether it is investigating the state officials' appearance in Visa's videos.
"Our doors are always open to public servants on how a cause of action applies to past opinions on the state Ethics Act," Kirk told the newspaper.
In August 2012, the Ethics Commission ruled that public officials are prohibited by the ethics law from endorsing products, unless the endorsement's public benefit outweighs the private gain.
"The Ethics Commission is unable to envision a circumstance where a public servant could appear, or be referenced, in an advertisement for a product, service or business without violating the Ethics Act," the 2012 opinion said.
Visa's marketing campaign, which began in October 2009, also has featured the governments of Pakistan and the Dominican Republic to show how purchasing card programs save taxpayer dollars.
The other West Virginia officials who appeared in the promotional videos were Mike Dorsey, the Department of Environmental Protection's chief of homeland security and emergency response; Jim Calvert, DEP's administrative services manager; state Division of Highways Deputy Secretary Keith Chapman; and Cindy Marn, associate director of purchasing services at West Virginia University.
"The agency was approached by the auditor's office about participating in the campaign by talking about the efficiencies of using the purchasing card in our day-to-day operations," DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco told the newspaper. "Neither of the employees received compensation for this participation, nor did the agency, so we did not seek exemptions from the Ethics Commission beyond anything that was done by the Auditor."
Brent Walker, the DOH spokesman, said Gainer asked Chapman to participate in the videos.
"We were told it was purely for informational and educational purposes," Walker told the newspaper. "To the extent that it might be viewed otherwise, he certainly did not knowingly or intentionally lend his prestige as a DOT employee to advance the purposes of any specific vendor." State agencies use the purchasing cards to make major contract payments and small-dollar transactions. It averages 56,000 transactions totaling $36 million each month.