W.Va. auditor seeks ethics opinion for ad

CHARLESTON – West Virginia Auditor Glen Gainer III is seeking an opinion from the state’s Ethics Commission on his participation in an online advertisement for Visa, regarding the state of West Virginia Purchasing Card program.

Gainer, a Parkersburg resident, and four other state agency administrators appear in online videos promoting Visa’s purchasing card program. Gainer’s office manages the program for state government, which has a $432 million purchasing card contract with Visa. The officials say they received no compensation to appear in the ads.

Questions arose on the ethics of state officials appearing in such ads.

In the ads, the officials talk mostly about how the purchasing card program saves money. They seldom mention Visa by name.

A copy of a letter Gainer sent to Theresa Kirk, executive director of the West Virginia Ethics Commission, was released by Gainer’s office Monday.

In the letter, Gainer asks Kirk for a formal Advisory Opinion on his participation in the ads on the Visa Currency of Progress website.

”The state of West Virginia Purchasing Card program is a revenue generating program providing approximately ($8 million) in rebate dollars annually to the state as well as an estimated ($145 million) in cost savings related to payment processing,” Gainer wrote. ”The contract for vendor services is held by Citibank.

”Visa is not a direct vendor of the state, nor is Visa, to my knowledge, a direct vendor for any purchasing card program. Visa is the brand chosen by the vendor.”

The choice of Visa or any other provider by the vendor is revenue and cost neutral to the program, Gainer wrote adding it is immaterial in the selection process.

”Thus, I participated in the Visa’s Currency of Progress website with the knowledge that Visa does not advertise or solicit business from any purchasing card program,” he said. ”I am not aware of any decision by the Ethics Commission defining ‘advertising’ to encompass this scenario.”

Gainer said he also participated in recognizing the success the state has achieved in the purchasing card area.

”This state has been repeatedly lauded for purchasing card best practices,” he wrote. ”Highlighting our achievements and successes, rather than belaboring our perceived shortcomings, promotes our state.

”The public benefit is obvious. It would be unfortunate if public officials were unable to promote, or even provide factual comments concerning those successes.”

Gainer told Kirk he would provide her with any additional information or documents they would need.

In a separate letter to Darren Muise of Visa Inc., also released by Gainer’s office Monday, Gainer was confirming his office’s request to remove the link between Visa’s website and the state of West Virginia’s purchasing card video. He said he believes the link was taken down.

”We have recently been made aware of an enquiry regarding the video’s compliance with our Ethics Act,” Gainer wrote. ”Although we believe the factual promotion of the state’s successes in this area fully comply with the requirements of the Act, it would be improper to continue to allow access during the pendency of an enquiry.”

Gainer said he would inform Muise of any decision handed down by the Ethics Commission.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)