Gainer queries ethics panel over Visa ads

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia State Auditor Glen Gainer has asked the state Ethics Commission whether he can continue to take part in an online advertising campaign for Visa, the same company that has helped pay for an open bar "welcome reception" at the auditor's conference at Snowshoe Mountain Resort the past two years.Visa and partner Citibank paid for beer, wine and mixed drinks at Gainer's conference. About 500 people attend each year. The auditor's office picks up the cost of appetizers, chips and soft drinks at the reception.Gainer said this week he did not ask Visa or Citibank to provide alcohol drinks for conference participants. Such a request would violate the state Ethics Act.Gainer started appearing in video ad spots on Visa's website two months before the auditor's conference at Snowshoe last September."The Ethics Act itself expressly authorizes public officials to accept unsolicited food and beverages," Gainer said in a prepared statement. "The beverages paid for by Citibank and Visa were unsolicited, and the payment for them was arranged between two private entities -- Citibank and the resort. I did not authorize the arrangement as I was not a party to it."In late February, Gainer asked the state Ethics Commission for a formal advisory opinion on whether his appearance in an online Visa advertising campaign violated the state's ethics law. The request followed a Gazette report about Gainer's Visa video spots, which promote West Virginia's purchasing card, or "P-card," program.In response, Gainer asked Visa to remove the ads from its website while the Ethics Commission reviews the matter.Citibank provides Visa purchasing cards to the state under a contract. Gainer's office manages the program.In his statement this week, Gainer said he "did not object" to Citibank and Visa providing beer, wine and liquor at his conference. He said Citibank has paid for "adult beverages" since 2007. Visa has shared the reception's cost the past two years, he said.The companies pay for conference attendees' drinks up to a "prearranged cap ... after which a cash bar is initiated," Gainer said. His office said Visa and Citibank have shut down the open bar and switched to a cash bar at past conferences. Gainer said he didn't know the cap's dollar limit. "The cap arranged between Citibank/Visa and the resort was arranged between those entities," Gainer said Tuesday. "We did not receive advance knowledge of those arrangements nor did we participate in them."At the state auditor's conference in September, Gainer's office spent about $12,600 on appetizers, bottled water, juices and sodas for the Tuesday-night reception, invoices show. The food included baked brie en croute, Caprese salad, "Snowshoe crudities," crab and shrimp spring rolls, and Swedish meatballs. The reception also featured a $115 "watermelon sculpture" and chocolate-dipped strawberries.The conference agenda lists a two-hour "welcome reception provided by Visa and Citi."But Gainer said Tuesday that the reception is hosted by his office, not by the companies that do business with the state. He said the agenda "may have inaccurately referred to the reception as sponsored.""Neither Visa nor Citibank sponsor a welcome reception at the state auditor's conference," Gainer said. "A reception is scheduled by the resort and my staff as part of the conference activities."
Theresa Kirk, the Ethics Commission's outgoing executive director, said the commission hasn't specifically ruled on whether vendors may host a reception at a state conference, if the companies have a contract with the state agency sponsoring the event.Kirk said previous commission opinions ban agencies from soliciting funds for social events. But she noted that the Ethics Act gives the green light for state employees to accept meals and beverages from vendors."There is no monetary limitation on the value of the meal or beverage," Kirk said. "The only limitation is that the interested party must be present."Even if a vendor is not present, if the vendor offered to host the event in question as part of a sponsorship contribution, there appears to be no requirement that a vendor representative be present."In addition to Gainer's request for an advisory opinion, the Ethics Commission is investigating a formal complaint about Gainer's participation in Visa's online advertising campaign.Last August, the commission ruled that state law prohibits public officials 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," according to the 2012 opinion.State ethics law prohibits public officials from using the "prestige of his or her office" for the private gain of an individual or business.Gainer has said that his appearance in Visa's video spots had an obvious "overwhelming public benefit" -- to recognize that the purchasing cards save taxpayers $145 million a year -- and therefore was permissible under the Ethics Act.Four other state officials took part in the online advertising campaign. Gainer and the state agency administrators said they received no compensation.Visa's "Currency of Progress" marketing campaign promotes the use of prepaid credit cards over cash and checks.The online spots included shots of the state Capitol, West Virginia state flag, the auditor's office and campaign buttons that say, "Elect Gainer Auditor." Gainer's late father, Glen Gainer Jr., who served as auditor from 1977 to 1993, used the buttons, an auditor's office spokesman has said.In one video, Gainer says, "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 remarks, "If we tried to take the cards away, I'd be run out of office."West Virginia agencies have issued about 7,000 Visa purchasing cards, according to Visa's website. Authorized employees receive the Visa cards, which act much like a credit card. The cards are used for small-dollar transactions, as well as major contract payments.Reach Eric Eyre at or 304-348-4869.
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