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Gainer, state agency officials appear in online Visa 'P-card' marketing campaign

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.

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

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

Instead, they mostly talk about how the purchasing card program saves money - an estimated $145 million a year in West Virginia, according to the promotional videos.

In the videos, state officials also talk about the convenience of using Visa purchasing cards.

In one online ad, Mike Dorsey, DEP's chief of homeland security and emergency response, remarks, "The great thing about the card is during an emergency we can use it any place that takes Visa."

Jim Calvert, DEP's administrative services manager, also appeared in the same video.

"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," said DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco. "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."

State Highways Deputy Secretary Keith Chapman also appears in the online ads, including one titled, "Paving the way to government efficiency."

Chapman says in the Visa video that the card has changed the way the Department of Transportation does business.  

Highways spokesman Brent Walker said Chapman agreed to take part in purchasing card videos at Gainer's request. Walker said the film crew that shot the video told Chapman his interview wouldn't be used for "promotional purposes."

Chapman never specifically mentions Visa in the videos.

"We were told it was purely for informational and educational purposes," Walker said. "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." 

Cindy Marn, WVU's associate director of purchasing services, also appears in the videos, saying the university uses Visa purchasing cards to buy meat, bread, ice cream and other products.

"There are no restrictions other than you are not permitted to buy live animals on a card," Marn says in the online ad. "There's no way WVU could operate without purchasing cards."

West Virginia agencies have issued about 7,000 Visa purchasing cards, with plans to distribute 10,000 more, according to Visa's website. Authorized 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.

The videos are available on YouTube or at: http://currencyofprogress.visa.com/category/governments-economies/.

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


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