Gary Fineout’s story last week on legislative employees moonlighting and the stories that followed it were disturbing to a codger like me.

All they did was remind me how the practice of journalism — and myself with it — has changed in the last 20, 30, 40 years, particularly in a market like Tallahassee where money, influence, ambition and quid pro quos make up the collective culture.

Fineout wrote that until recently Fred Piccolo, communications director for Speaker Richard Corcoran, had been working on the side for Peter Schorsch’s Florida Politics, a St. Petersburg-based media organization that covers state politics and the Legislature.

As the story points out, legislative rules require employees to get approval to do outside work, but Piccolo, who makes $110,000 a year at his day job, didn’t do that. There was no public record to say he was also a graphic designer for Schorsch.

A communications director whose job is to distribute news fairly to all Florida media is working on the sly for one political news operation … Think about that for a moment. 

As a reporter/editor, how do I or any other media person work with a speaker’s comms director if it’s acknowledged he was secretly paid by a competitor? And how do I trust the transparency in the Speaker’s Office going forward?

Imagine the tizzy at New York Times if Michael Casca, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s communications director, was found moonlighting for the Wall Street Journal. You think heads wouldn’t roll?

But on Monday, Schorsch, who excuses a lot of bad judgment by saying, “I never professed to be a journalist,” wrote a column blowing off criticism of Piccolo’s deception. 
 
Mostly, the column looked like the continuation of a Friday Twitter rant about Meteoric Media Strategies founder Brian Hughes. Hughes is also the husband of Rachel Perrin Rogers, who has accused Sen. Jack Latvala of inappropriate sexual conduct. And Latvala is one of Schorsch’s political consulting clients. If you want a better sense of the pay-to-play relationships involved here, Adam Smith at the Tampa Bay Times sums it up fairly succinctly here.

But my point is, Schorsch makes Hughes, not Piccolo who failed to declare his conflict of interest, the bad guy for reporting the communications director to Fineout. “What kind of nickel-dick man tattle tales to a reporter about someone making a few extra dollars designing invitations to a children’s party?” Schorsch asks.

How about a nickel-dick man who gets what ethics rules are all about?

And how could anybody, asks Schorsch, complain about a guy (Piccolo) earning a little extra money “so that he and his wife could pay for an adoption?”

Maybe somebody who believes it’s the wrong source of income for a speaker’s communications director who prizes at least a perception of fair play.

Not only is Piccolo “just working hard for his family,” writes Schorsh, but “he’s battling a horrible degenerative disease” and “the graphic design work he does is therapeutic.”

Well, then, Peter Schorsch must be a saint.

Except, like he says, he isn’t a journalist and doesn’t have a journalist’s view of conflicts of interest. 

My big fear is, the hundreds of people in Tallahassee and beyond who deal with Schorsch, who read Schorsch regularly, will actually believe this is how the Fourth Estate works, or this is how conflicts of interest should be defined. 

The Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code cautions: “Getting too close to sources sorely compromises a journalist’s ability to ‘act independently,'” adding, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” Not remotely possible for a pay-to-player.

As for Piccolo, apparently all is forgiven. He snuck around the rules but isn’t doing it anymore — case closed. That’s good enough for Corcoran, who also paid Schorsch $20,000 for advertising this year. 

“This has been addressed and corrected with the employee,” the speaker told the Times. “Going forward, the employee will not be engaging in outside employment.”

It almost embarrasses me now, in this kindly, money-greased environment, to remember I once fired an employee who asked me if he could write press releases for Sunkist in his spare time, and when I said no, he did it anyway.

I never gave it a second thought; he was gone the next day.

I guess Schorsch would call me a nickel-dick woman … and a coward. “When you rat out a guy just working hard for his family, you’re a coward,” he opined.

Is it just me, or does that sound a little like a line from “The Godfather”?

Reach Nancy Smith at [email protected] or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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