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Ethics agency directs Gainer to stop Visa promotion

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Ethics Commission has scolded state Auditor Glen Gainer for taking part in an online advertising campaign for Visa.

In an advisory opinion, the commission ruled that state officials can't promote programs on a company's website. Commissioners also found that Gainer may have violated the Ethics Act by using his office for private gain.

"[Gainer] may not appear in a video on the state subcontractor's website to promote his office's electronic payment program," the commission concluded Thursday.

The decision follows reports in The Charleston Gazette that revealed that Gainer and four state agency administrators promoting the state's Visa purchasing card, or "P-card," program in three online videos last summer.

Visa removed the videos, at Gainer's request, after the Gazette reported on the ads. The auditor also asked the Ethics Commission for an advisory opinion on the matter.

Gainer has said his appearance in the ad campaign had an "overwhelming public benefit" -- to recognize that the purchasing cards save the government $145 million a year.

The Ethics Commission concluded that Gainer has "every right to be proud" of the program and to promote it.

"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."

Gainer spokesman Justin Southern said the auditor would no longer take part in the Visa promotion.

"We respect the ethics committee's decision and will follow its advice," Southern said.

In previous decisions, the Ethics Commission has made clear that public officials in West Virginia should appear in advertisements for businesses and their products.

In this week's opinion, commissioners said the online Visa ads could have given Gainer a boost in his re-election. Gainer got 57 percent of the vote and defeated Republican Larry Faircloth in the November general election.

The Visa ads were available on the company's website during the campaign.

"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," commissioners wrote in their opinion.

The online spots include shots of the state Capitol, West Virginia state flag, the auditor's office and campaign buttons that say, "Elect Gainer Auditor." The campaign buttons were used by his late father, Glen Gainer Jr., who served as auditor from 1977 to 1983, according to a Gainer spokesman.

In one video, Gainer remarks, "When you run for public office -- and I am elected -- the one thing people like to say is, 'We need to run government more like a business. If anything, we try to do it better than they do in the private sector.'"

In the same video, Gainer later says, "If we tried to take the cards away, I'd be run out of office."

Visa's online commercials with Gainer started appearing on the company's "Currency of Progress" website 10 months ago. Visa started the marketing campaign in 2009, spotlighting the benefits of using prepaid cards over cash and checks.

In addition to West Virginia, Visa has used the governments of Pakistan and the Dominican Republic to show how the purchasing-card programs save taxpayer dollars.

In the West Virginia spots, Gainer and other state officials seldom mention Visa by name.

Gainer has said he received no financial compensation for taking part in the Visa ad campaign.

Gainer's office has a contract with Citibank, which provides the Visa cards.

West Virginia agencies have issued about 7,00 Visa purchasing cards, with plans to distribute 10,000 more, according to Visa's website. Authorized state employees receive the Visa cards, which act much like a credit card.

The state averages 56,000 transactions totaling $36 million each month. The cards are used for small-dollar transactions, as well as major contract payments.

In its opinion, the Ethics Commission said it would be OK for Gainer to promote the purchasing-card program on the state auditor's website, so long as he doesn't mention Visa by name.

In addition to issuing the advisory opinion, the ethics agency is investigating a formal complaint about Gainer's participation in Visa's online advertising campaign.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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