State official in video for firm that got stimulus funds
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For three years, state emergency communications director Joe Gonzalez has helped manage a $33 million microwave tower expansion project in West Virginia funded by the federal economic stimulus.
Now, Gonzalez is touting the California firm that supplied radio equipment for the project on the company's main Web page -- even though the state Ethics Commission has made clear that public officials shouldn't appear in such online video testimonials.
Gonzalez, communications director for the state Office of Emergency Medical Services, appears in an online video for Aviat Networks, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based company that received $27 million in stimulus funds for radio equipment that's being attached to 17 new towers in West Virginia's statewide emergency radio communications network.
On Tuesday, Gonzalez said he has never seen the video and didn't know Aviat had posted it on the company's home page and YouTube channel.
"I just did a video at a conference with them, and they asked questions about how it was working, and I answered them," Gonzalez said. "It is what it is. I have nothing to hide."
Aviat removed the video from its website and YouTube channel Wednesday morning.
In the video, Gonzalez remarks, "Aviat truly wants to make the system work, and they want it to work well...It's not about let's sell radios and make a few bucks, come in and leave town."
Gonzalez later goes on to say, "It has been a full teamwork project, and we're very satisfied with Aviat."
The video testimonial was first posted April 24.
Two months earlier, the state Ethics Commission started a widely publicized investigation of state Auditor Glen Gainer and four state agency administrators who took part in an online Visa advertising campaign. In an April 3 advisory opinion, the Ethics Commission ruled that state officials can't promote programs or products on a company's website.
The commission concluded that Gainer gave "the prestige of his public position to a private business for which there is no overriding public benefit."
Despite the ruling, Gonzalez showed up in the Aviat video testimonial three weeks later. Aviat also took quotes from the video and posted them on the company's main Web page and another Web page.
Gonzalez said Tuesday he told the truth when asked at the conference about Aviat's radio equipment and satellites.
He said Aviat didn't pay him for the testimonials.
"We're not showing any favoritism to anybody," Gonzalez said. "I'm not endorsing anybody's product. I just don't do that."
In the April video, Gonzalez repeatedly praises Aviat's equipment, which includes "encryption" designed to thwart eavesdroppers and hackers. "There wasn't a huge cost involved," Gonzalez says on the Aviat Networks video. "It was designed in. It is a beautiful thing."
Gonzalez has additional ties to Aviat. In 2010, he recommended that the Lewis County Commission award a contract to Aviat, which supplied radio equipment for a tower in Roanoke and other locations.
Aviat also posted written testimonials from Gonzalez about the company in 2011. But Aviat removed Gonzalez's comments from its website after The Charleston Gazette reported that Gonzalez hired the son of state Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato to work on the tower project. Gonzalez heads the "towers team" and reports to Gianato, who's overseeing a $126.3 million high-speed Internet expansion project that includes the towers.
The Ethics Commission's April advisory opinion on Gainer mirrored previous rulings that barred public officials from endorsing products.
"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 of business without violating the Ethics Act," the agency concluded in an opinion last year.
Earlier this year, the Ethics Commission also investigated a complaint against Gainer filed by Republican activist Rob Cornelius, who alleged Gainer broke state ethics laws by appearing in the online Visa ads. In June, Gainer settled the complaint, agreeing to donate $1,000 to a Charleston hospital. Visa also pulled the ads from its website.
The West Virginia Legislative Auditor's Office is reviewing the state's use of stimulus funds to upgrade the emergency communication tower network.
The tower system -- called the Statewide Interoperable Radio Network -- is used exclusively by first responders: police officers, firefighters, 911 operators and paramedics.
Gonzalez said the new towers are up and running, and he has no complaints about Aviat's equipment.
"If their equipment wasn't any good, I'd be the first to say so," he said. "But it's working well. That's the God's honest truth."
Gonzalez added that he has visited Aviat's headquarters in California once, and the company's Texas factory four times. He said the state paid his travel expenses. An Aviat spokesman would not comment Tuesday.
Aviat recently invited Gonzalez to speak at a company-sponsored conference to talk about West Virginia's $33 million microwave tower project. Gonzalez said he has asked Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office to give the OK.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.