CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Ethics Commission has made clear that public officials in West Virginia shouldn't appear in advertisements for businesses and their products.
But that hasn't stopped state Auditor Glen Gainer and four state agency administrators from taking part in an online Visa advertising campaign.
Gainer, two Department of Environmental Protection directors, the Division of Highways' deputy secretary and a West Virginia University purchasing official tout the state's Visa purchasing card, or "P-card," program in three online promotional videos.
Gainer's office contacted the state Ethics Commission Friday after the Gazette started asking questions about the auditor's appearance in Visa's ads.
Gainer was unavailable for comment last week, but his spokesman said the auditor would direct Visa to remove the videos from its website today and ask the state Ethics Commission for a formal advisory opinion on the matter.
"The State Auditor's Office believes in maintaining the highest ethical standard," said Justin Southern, a spokesman for Gainer. "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 would not say whether the commission is investigating the state officials' appearance in Visa's videos.
"We aren't authorized to confirm or deny if there is any such investigation," Kirk said. "Our doors are always open to public servants on how a cause of action applies to past opinions on the state Ethics Act."
Gainer and the other state officials said they weren't paid to appear in the Visa video spots. West Virginia state government has a $432 million purchasing card contract with Citibank, which provides the Visa cards. Gainer's office manages the program.
In one video, Gainer remarks, "Visa's been an outstanding business partner ... working with us to better meet the needs of our vendors."
The online spots include shots of the state Capitol, West Virginia state flag, the auditor's office and Gainer campaign buttons that say, "Elect Gainer Auditor."
"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,'" Gainer says in the video. "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."
Last year, the state Ethics Commission issued an opinion about public officials appearing in product ads: "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 agency concluded.
State ethics law prohibits public officials from using the "prestige of his or her office" for the private gain of an individual or business.
"The Ethics Act prohibits public officials from endorsing products," the commission ruled in an August opinion.
The only exception: if the endorsement's "public benefit outweighs the private gain."
Visa's online commercials with Gainer started appearing on the company's "Currency of Progress" website eight months ago. Visa started the marketing campaign in October 2009, spotlighting the benefits of using pre-paid credit cards over cash and checks.