CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Prohibitions on endorsements by public officials has been one of the more clunky parts of the state Ethics Act practically from the start.
Infamously, the Ethics Commission once interpreted the law to bar two bloodhounds used by the Division of Forestry from appearing in a dog food commercial -- but has carved out an exception so college football and basketball coaches can make commercial appearances and endorsement deals to their hearts' -- and wallets' -- content.
Although there's never been a specific complaint or request for an advisory opinion, the Ethics Commission has relied on a 1992 revision to the Ethics Act exempting higher education faculty or staff "engaged in teaching, research, consulting, or publication activities."
The intent of that law was to allow, as an example, a professor to publish (and make money from) a textbook based on coursework taught at a state college or university without violating the prohibition on use of public office for private gain.
As interpreted, it means Bob Huggins can have Nike endorsements, and Doc Holliday can appear in commercials for a local bank in which he's spotted all over town checking his account balances ...
Technically, there is no specific prohibition on endorsements, but a ban on using the prestige of public office for one's private gain, or the private gain of another.
The intent of the law is clear. We don't want advertisements to the effect of, "Gov. Jones smokes Pall Malls, and you should, too ..."
However, if Macy's, Gestamp or Toyota decided they wanted to do a commercial spot or promotional video touting their successful operations in West Virginia, the governor couldn't appear in the ad saying what wonderful corporate neighbors the companies have been, without violating the Ethics Act, as currently interpreted.
At some point, it gets a little ridiculous to think that the prestige of public office of a small, rural, relatively poor state is going to benefit large multi-national, multibillion-dollar companies such as Macy's or Toyota.
Which brings us to the recent conciliation agreement with Auditor Glen Gainer. Gainer's transgression did not involve accepting bribes, shaking down employees for campaign contributions, giving high-paying jobs to relatives, or accepting a gift Rolex. No, Gainer's sin was appearing in a promotional video for Visa, touting the company's government credit card, or P-card, program.
(Of which he should be rightfully proud, since the program saves the state more than $100 million a year in processing costs, and makes it easy to flag improper purchases by state employees ...)
Ironically, until a few years ago, the existence of such promotional videos, intended for use at conferences, trade shows or stockholders' meetings, would have gone unnoticed by the general public. Now, in the YouTube era, those videos are easily accessible for public consumption.