MORGANTOWN – West Virginia public officials, from the governor to county officeholders, are sifting through an advisory opinion by the state Ethics Commission to try to figure out how they can and cannot use their names and/or likenesses.
The commission released its opinion earlier this month after an unidentified elected official asked for guidance on how to comply with the new law.
The legislation has been nicknamed the “trinkets law” because of the plethora of cups, magnets, key chains, pens, pencils and other assorted baubles politicians have distributed at taxpayer expense over the years. Delegate Kelli Sobonya (R-Cabell) successfully pushed the bill through this year after a decade of trying.
The law was long overdue, and it will cut down on the waste of taxpayer dollars for political self-promotion. However, the Ethics Commission’s opinion has left some public officials wondering how far they must go in scrubbing their images from their offices.
For example, the opinion says a public official’s website can include their picture on the biography page, but “multiple photographs of the official throughout the website should not be used.” Another section extends that limitation of photos of the office holder on educational materials he or she may distribute to the public.
The Ethics Commission also determined that any items classified as “trinkets” under the new state law that were purchased prior to May 28, 2015 (the effective date of the statute) “may not be used.” One office holder complained to me off the record that that means items already purchased will have to be thrown away.
The ruling comes just before the start of the State Fair of West Virginia, where politicians have historically set up tables and booths to draw visitors with their giveaways. This year, according to the Ethics Commission ruling, office holders will even be prohibited from using banners or table skirts with their names and pictures on them.
A representative of another office holder complained privately to me that the commission’s opinion could cross the line into legitimate constituent service. Another said it could open the door for “gotcha” complaints by political opponents for minor or inadvertent offenses.
Also, one finding by the commission could conceivably raise a First Amendment issue because it says educational materials paid for with private funds from a third party are still subject to the Ethics Act.
Ultimately, however, these issues should sort themselves out, perhaps on a case by case basis. It may be impractical to try to list every possible violation of the trinkets law, although some of the most egregious violations will be self-evident.
What’s important is that public officials make a reasonable and good faith effort to comply with the spirit of the law, which is to not use taxpayer money for campaigning purposes.
Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.