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BROADBAND EXPANSION EMERGENCIES CHIEF FINED FOR VIDEO AD BY ETHICS PANEL


Publication: THE SUNDAY GAZETTE-MAIL
Published: Sunday, March 16, 2014
Page: 1A
Byline: ERIC EYRE STAFF WRITER

The West Virginia Ethics Commission has fined state emergency communications director Joe Gonzalez after he admitted appearing in an online promotional video for a California firm that sold $27 million worth of radio equipment to the Tomblin administration.


The Ethics Commission directed Gonzalez to "cease and desist" from taking part in company promotions, pay a $525 fine and attend ethics training.


The commission's order follows a Sunday Gazette-Mail report in August that Gonzalez had touted Aviat Network's radio equipment on the company's website. Aviat removed Gonzalez's video from its website and YouTube channel the following day.


The Ethics Commission has made clear that public officials shouldn't endorse products and appear in online video testimonials or ads.


Gonzalez's lawyer, Joe Ward, said Aviat used an "informational interview ... without [Gonzalez's] knowledge for promotional purposes."


"Joe has never intentionally used his office for the personal gain of himself or others and is thankful that the state Ethics Commission recognized that to be the case in this instance," Ward said in a statement.


Gonzalez agreed to a public reprimand from the Ethics Commission, but commissioners excluded a reprimand from their final order.


"...The Commission found that it was in the best interest of the state and the respondent [Gonzalez]," said Joan Parker, the agency's executive director.


For three years, Gonzalez helped manage a $33 million microwave-tower expansion project in West Virginia that was funded by the federal economic stimulus. Aviat received $27 million for radio equipment that was attached to microwave towers in the statewide emergency-communications network.


In the online video, Gonzalez remarked, "Aviat truly wants to make the system work, and they want it to work well ... . It's not about let's sell radios and make a few bucks, come in and leave town."


Gonzalez later went on to say, "It's been a full teamwork project, and we're very satisfied with Aviat."


Aviat also took quotes from the video and posted them on its main web page and another web page.


Gonzalez, communications director at the state Office of Emergency Medical Services, said Aviat never paid him for the testimonials, according to his agreement with the ethics panel.


Gonzalez told the commission that an Aviat representative asked him to speak on camera at the International Wireless Communications Expo in March 2013. Gonzalez said he "profoundly regrets any appearance of impropriety" and that his actions "were a result of a lack of vigilance on his part," according to the agreement.


Gonzalez has additional ties to Aviat.


In 2010, he recommended that the Lewis County Commission award a contract to Aviat, which supplied radio equipment for a tower in Roanoke and other locations.


Aviat also posted written testimonials from Gonzalez about the company in 2011. However, Aviat abruptly removed comments from its website after the Gazette-Mail reported that Gonzalez hired the son of state Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato to work on the tower project. Gonzalez headed the "tower team" and reported to Gianato, who oversaw a $126.3 million high-speed Internet expansion project that included the towers.


In September, the West Virginia Legislative Auditor issued a scathing report about the tower project, citing bidding irregularities, purchasing violations and misuse of federal grant funds. Auditors concluded that Gonzalez circumvented purchasing laws and ignored a directive to stop construction on the towers.


After the audit's release, Republican operative Rob Cornelius filed an ethics complaint against Gonzalez.


The Ethics Commission noted that Cornelius' allegations about Gonzalez's management of the tower project dated back to 2009. Ethics complaints must be filed within two years of the alleged violation.


The commission found that Gonzalez didn't violate any ethics laws because "other public officials" - not Gonzalez - awarded contracts for the tower project, according to the agreement. The commission did not name the other officials.


Legislative auditors also questioned the relocation of a fire tower from Fayette County to the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park. The Mountain State Railroad and Logging Historical Association spearheaded the move. Gonzalez served on the association's board of directors, the audit revealed.


The Ethics Commission, however, concluded that Gonzalez didn't benefit from that tower relocation project because the state owns the fire tower and that "other public officials and government entities" decided to move it.


Ward said Cornelius' complaint was "politically motivated," and that allegations about the tower project were "meritless."


"Joe is relieved to have put this matter behind him so that he can return to working without distraction to provide the people of West Virginia the most effective emergency-communications system possible," Ward said. "Joe takes great pride in his service to the state and is hopeful that this experience will deepen his commitment to that service and help him become a better public servant."


Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.

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