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Ethics panel OK's P-cards for WVU Foundation

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Ethics Commission members Thursday authorized the state Auditor's Office to provide state purchasing cards to staff members of the West Virginia University Foundation, saying the public benefit of issuing the cards outweighs any possible private gain.

The state credit cards, known as P-cards, are issued by Visa and administered by the Auditor's Office and are issued to employees of various state agencies, and counties and municipalities.

Besides reducing costs of processing transactions by check, the cards provide rebates on purchases.

Many employees at state colleges and universities are issued P-cards, but this will be the first time a nonprofit foundation has been approved to receive them.

Joan Parker, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said while that might constitute private gain for the Foundation, it is outweighed by the overriding public interest of benefiting the public university.

"That money is not going into the pocket of an individual, but the pocket of a private, nonprofit entity whose sole purpose is to benefit the public university," Parker said.

Under the Ethics Act, people who request advisory opinions are confidential, but Justin Southern, spokesman for state Auditor Glen Gainer, confirmed that the request was on behalf of the WVU Foundation.

The Foundation will piggyback on WVU's P-card contract.

In addition to rebates, Gainer has touted the P-card system for saving the state about $145 million per year over costs of processing those purchases through traditional paper transactions.

Coincidentally, Gainer entered into a conciliation agreement with the Ethics Commission last month to resolve an ethics complaint filed by Republican operative Rob Cornelius, which contended that Gainer had violated state ethics law by appearing in a promotional video produced by Visa to promote the P-card system.

Also Thursday, the commission:

• Adopted a policy that will allow it to begin publishing names of public officials and candidates who have failed to submit financial disclosures, as required under the ethics law.

Under the law, public officials must submit the forms, which disclose all sources of income over $1,000 and all business interests of $10,000 or more, each Feb. 1.

Failure to submit the disclosure is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to one year in jail. Candidates who fail to submit disclosures cannot appear on election ballots.

To date, ethics staffers have sent four notices to individuals who have not filed their disclosures.

"There are still about 200 or so we haven't heard from," said commission administrator Lucy Suchy.

As part of 2011 legislation toughening the Ethics Act, the commission has authority to publish names of individuals who fail to file financial disclosures.

• Determined a county commission may not hire a private attorney who maintains a criminal defense practice in the county to represent the county on civil matters.

Commissioners concluded that would create inescapable conflicts, including the potential that criminal defendants would hire the attorney because of his relationships with the county sheriff's department and county prosecutor's office.

• Ruled that state employees may set up planters on a state-owned parking garage to grow produce and flowers to distribute to low-income families served by the state agency.

"When the overriding benefit is to the public," Parker said, "that benefit outweighs or legitimizes any private gain."

• Ruled that a state elected official may serve as secretary of his local Masonic Lodge and accept an expense reimbursement of $300 a month.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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