CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia State Auditor Glen Gainer has asked the state Ethics Commission whether he can continue to take part in an online advertising campaign for Visa, the same company that has helped pay for an open bar "welcome reception" at the auditor's conference at Snowshoe Mountain Resort the past two years.
Visa and partner Citibank paid for beer, wine and mixed drinks at Gainer's conference. About 500 people attend each year. The auditor's office picks up the cost of appetizers, chips and soft drinks at the reception.
Gainer said this week he did not ask Visa or Citibank to provide alcohol drinks for conference participants. Such a request would violate the state Ethics Act.
Gainer started appearing in video ad spots on Visa's website two months before the auditor's conference at Snowshoe last September.
"The Ethics Act itself expressly authorizes public officials to accept unsolicited food and beverages," Gainer said in a prepared statement. "The beverages paid for by Citibank and Visa were unsolicited, and the payment for them was arranged between two private entities -- Citibank and the resort. I did not authorize the arrangement as I was not a party to it."
In late February, Gainer asked the state Ethics Commission for a formal advisory opinion on whether his appearance in an online Visa advertising campaign violated the state's ethics law. The request followed a Gazette report about Gainer's Visa video spots, which promote West Virginia's purchasing card, or "P-card," program.
In response, Gainer asked Visa to remove the ads from its website while the Ethics Commission reviews the matter.
Citibank provides Visa purchasing cards to the state under a contract. Gainer's office manages the program.
In his statement this week, Gainer said he "did not object" to Citibank and Visa providing beer, wine and liquor at his conference. He said Citibank has paid for "adult beverages" since 2007. Visa has shared the reception's cost the past two years, he said.
The companies pay for conference attendees' drinks up to a "prearranged cap ... after which a cash bar is initiated," Gainer said. His office said Visa and Citibank have shut down the open bar and switched to a cash bar at past conferences. Gainer said he didn't know the cap's dollar limit.
"The cap arranged between Citibank/Visa and the resort was arranged between those entities," Gainer said Tuesday. "We did not receive advance knowledge of those arrangements nor did we participate in them."
At the state auditor's conference in September, Gainer's office spent about $12,600 on appetizers, bottled water, juices and sodas for the Tuesday-night reception, invoices show. The food included baked brie en croute, Caprese salad, "Snowshoe crudities," crab and shrimp spring rolls, and Swedish meatballs. The reception also featured a $115 "watermelon sculpture" and chocolate-dipped strawberries.
The conference agenda lists a two-hour "welcome reception provided by Visa and Citi."
But Gainer said Tuesday that the reception is hosted by his office, not by the companies that do business with the state. He said the agenda "may have inaccurately referred to the reception as sponsored."
"Neither Visa nor Citibank sponsor a welcome reception at the state auditor's conference," Gainer said. "A reception is scheduled by the resort and my staff as part of the conference activities."
Theresa Kirk, the Ethics Commission's outgoing executive director, said the commission hasn't specifically ruled on whether vendors may host a reception at a state conference, if the companies have a contract with the state agency sponsoring the event.