CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State Auditor Glen Gainer on Monday defended his decision to take part in an online Visa advertising campaign that touts the West Virginia's purchasing card program.
Gainer said his appearance in Visa's video spots had an obvious "overwhelming public benefit" -- to recognize that the purchasing cards save taxpayer dollars -- and therefore was permissible under the state Ethics Act.
On Monday, Visa removed the ads from its website, while Gainer asked the state Ethics Commission for a formal advisory opinion on whether his appearance in the Visa videos violated the state's ethics law.
"We'll be working with the commission throughout this process," said Justin Southern, a spokesman for Gainer's office.
The Visa purchasing cards, also known as "P-cards," save the state $145 million a year, according to Gainer.
"Highlighting our achievements and successes, rather than belaboring our perceived shortcomings, promotes our state," said Gainer in a letter to Ethics Commission Executive Director Theresa Kirk on Monday. "The public benefit is obvious."
Visa took down the West Virginia purchasing card videos from its website Monday morning at Gainer's request.
"We have recently been made aware of an enquiry regarding the video's compliance with our Ethics Act," Gainer wrote to Visa. "Although we believe the factual promotion of the state's successes in this area fully comply with the requirement of the act, it would be improper to continue to allow access during the pendency of an enquiry."
In the videos, Gainer and four other state officials talk mostly about how West Virginia's state government purchasing card program saves money. They seldom mention Visa by name. They were responding to questions asked by the film crew that shot the videos, the state officials have said.
Gainer and the state agency administrators also said they received no compensation to appear in the videos, which are part of Visa's "Currency of Progress" marketing campaign that promotes the benefits of using prepaid credit cards over checks and cash.
Last August, the Ethics Commission ruled that the ethics law prohibits public officials from endorsing products, unless the endorsement's public benefit outweighs the private gain.
"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 2101 opinion stated.
State ethics law bars public officials from using the "prestige of his or her office" for the private gain of an individual or business.
In his letter to the Ethics Commission, Gainer said West Virginia "has been repeatedly lauded for purchasing card best practices." The program generates $8 million in "rebate dollars" every year, he said.