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Ethics complaint over Gainer, Visa ads settled

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Republican activist criticized the state Ethics Commission Monday after the agency quietly settled a complaint against state Auditor Glen Gainer by allowing Gainer to donate money to a Charleston hospital.

Rob Cornelius, who filed the complaint against Gainer, said he expected the Ethics Commission to take a tougher stand against the auditor, who took part in an online advertising campaign for Visa last year.

"I'm disappointed," said Cornelius, a spokesman for West Virginia Young Republicans. "He doesn't apologize. After five terms in office, he still clearly doesn't respect and understand the Ethics Act."

To settle the complaint, Gainer agreed to give $1,000 to a CAMC Women and Children's Hospital program that evaluates children suspected of being victims of child abuse. Gainer selected the CAMC program to "further [his] desire to help children," according to his "conciliation agreement" with the commission.

Joan Parker, executive director of the Ethics Commission, cited a 2009 case in which Cabell County's chief tax deputy donated $500 to a Huntington food bank in lieu of paying a fine to the commission.

"It has happened," Parker said Monday. "There is a precedent for a charitable contribution."

But Cornelius questioned why the commission allowed Gainer to pick a charity and donate money to resolve an ethics complaint. The commission typically fines public officials, who pay the penalties directly to the agency.

He also criticized the Ethics Commission for not posting Gainer's agreement on the agency's website. The commission approved the settlement at a June 6 meeting, but never publicly announced the deal.

Parker said the agency doesn't post conciliation agreements on its website unless the decisions include a public reprimand.

"There was no posting because there was no public reprimand," she said.

Cornelius, who released a copy of the complaint to Charleston media Sunday night, noted that it's Gainer's office that approves the Ethics Commission's expenses.

The agreement comes on the heels of an Ethics Commission investigation into whether the auditor violated the Ethics Act when he appeared in a series of online Visa commercials that promote the state's purchasing card ("P-card") program.

Gainer admitted no wrongdoing, but he agreed to contact Visa and have the ads permanently removed from the company's website. Gainer also must deliver a copy of the video to the Ethics Commission.

The commission declined to reprimand Gainer, citing "significant press coverage" and noting that he hadn't previously faced an ethics complaint during his 20 years of public service, according to the agreement. The commission also said Gainer cooperated with the investigation and demonstrated "candor and contrition."

Asked about the agreement, a Gainer spokesman referred a reporter to Charleston Area Medical Center.

The Gazette first reported on the Visa ads in February. Cornelius later filed an ethics complaint.

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

The online spots included shots of the Capitol, West Virginia state flag, the auditor's office and campaign buttons that said "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."

Citibank provides Visa purchasing cards under a state contract. Gainer's office manages the program.

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.

In April, the commission ruled that Gainer should not have taken part in an online advertising campaign for Visa. The commission found that the Ethics Act prohibits public officials from promoting programs on a company's website.

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

The Ethics Commission opinion concluded that Gainer had "every right to be proud" of the program.

"However, in the course of promoting his office's electronic payment program, he lends prestige of his public position to a private business for which there is no overriding public benefit," the commission wrote in the April opinion.

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

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

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


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