Friday, December 21, 2007

We're not Scrooges, but no gifts, please

The Manatee County Building Department, already losing its director under challenging circumstances this year, has come under increasing scrutiny this week, as reporter Natalie Neysa Alund has extensively covered the unfolding story.

Prosecutors dropped charges against Mike Todoroff, a building inspector fired after he admittedly took materials from a building site. Todoroff claimed he had permission to take the material as a gift. The charges were dropped in large part because of testimony from another inspector, John Darley, who stated that he and other county inspectors routinely accept gifts. Darley has been suspended without pay, pending the investigation now launched into the department's practices.

County Administrator Ed Hunzeker has noted that building department employees are prohibited from accepting gifts, spelled out in their ethics policy -- revised in July after Todoroff's arrest. Some readers have taken exception to enforcement of that policy, and have speculated that even Herald reporters might accept such gifts.

Herald newsroom employees cannot accept gifts of monetary value, and it's a firm chapter in our newsroom's ethics policy. At the least, any newsroom staffer accepting freebies could create a conflict of interest. And there is the potential for much worse: compromising the integrity of our news report.

Here's our guidelines, as written in our ethics policy:

Gifts, Tickets and Meals
You are required to return anything of more than token monetary value given to you by any news source. If that isn't possible, you must contribute the item to an appropriate charity. You also must send a letter or e-mail to the news source, explaining our policy.

Books, tapes, CDs and software may be accepted from publishers for review or story purposes because they are difficult to pay for or return. The items should eventually be donated to a non-profit enterprise.

If you are dining with a news source, you must make every effort to pay for your own expenses or to pick up the check for both of you. You should not dine with the news source a second time unless he or she agrees in advance that you will pay for your meal.

-- Joan

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