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Thumbs down: Officials' appearance in ads was ethical error

Feb. 26, 2013 @ 10:51 PM

Government officials are expected to inform the public about the performance of government programs. But to do so, they shouldn't be appearing in a business's advertising campaign that promotes one of its products.

Unfortunately, that's what West Virginia State Auditor Glen Gainer and some other state officials did recently, even though state ethics rule would appear to forbid it.

Gainer, two Department of Environmental Protection directors, the Division of Highways' deputy secretary and a West Virginia University purchasing official participated in an online Visa advertising campaign, touting the state's Visa purchasing card, or "P-card," program in three promotional videos. In the videos, the officials mostly focus on the savings that West Virginia's state government purchasing card program has allowed. They were not paid to appear in the videos.

Nevertheless, their appearance in the videos smacks of an endorsement of Visa's program. State ethics law prohibits public officials from using the "prestige of his or her office" for the private gain of an individual or business. In an opinion given last year, the Ethics Commission said it "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 only exception would be if there was an overwhelming public benefit. Gainer is arguing that his appearance in the advertising campaign fell into that category -- that he had a good story to tell about how use of the P-cards saves the state $145 million a year.

However, Gainer has other means at his disposal to tell that story. Report it to the legislature. Send out a press release. Share it at conferences of public officials as a best practice.

But to appear in a promotional video for a specific company? That's crossing the ethics line.

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