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Is saying hi to a reporter taboo for government employees?

Fri, Dec 7, 2012

FDEP, Permitting, Water districts

By Bruce Ritchie

Floridaenvironments.com

Connie Bersok

I didn’t see Connie Bersok at the Tallahassee airport art reception last April, but she sure saw me.

And she made a beeline out of there.

I know only because she told Florida Department of Environmental Protection investigators that during a recorded interview under oath on June 1.

Bersok is a wetlands expert who works at DEP. In May, she became the subject of Tampa Bay Times stories about the Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank permit application.

Bersok was suspended after she wrote a memo on May 9 objecting to the proposed permit application. DEP said she wasn’t suspended for the memo, rather she was suspended because of possible leave and conduct violations. She later was cleared during an investigation by the department.

She was reinstated to her job but she was no longer assigned to review Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank permit application.

DEP issued a permit for the project in August, and the Florida Wildlife Federation challenged it.

While I was reporting on Bersok’s testimony last week during a hearing on the administrative challenge, I was reminded of her June 1 interview with investigators. I received the recording in July as part of a public records request for materials related to the internal investigation.

Bersok was asked by DEP investigators whether she had provided information to the news media. She said no, she had only provided information when it was approved by DEP’s communications office.

She added, “In fact, it’s been challenging because I’ve been at some social settings.”

And then she recalled the David Moynahan photographic exhibit reception that I attended with my wife at the Tallahassee Regional Airport on April 13.

“When I saw Bruce Ritchie on one side, I made sure I stayed on the other end of the conversation where people were talking,” Bersok testified. “And I left before there could be even any chance of him saying hello to me.”

I’ve tried to put it out of my mind since then — because a woman avoiding me at a party is NOT news.

But it still just gnaws away at me. I see state employees in many situations, but I don’t try to pump them for information. I usually just say hi.

I asked DEP whether they have a policy against employees talking to reporters. (Of course, I knew the answer).

There is a “protocol,” Press Secretary Patrick Gillespie said, in which employees who are contacted by reporters should refer them to the DEP press office or a district media relations contact.

Many reporters bristle against such policies, saying that press officers and other media “minders” are really trying to prevent reporters from finding out what’s going on. (See PR Office Censorship.)

The purpose of the protocol, Gillespie said, is to make sure reporters get accurate information, sometimes from different divisions or district offices.

Is there any prohibition against state employees chatting in social situations?

“The DEP Press Office has never told employees to avoid the news media in social settings,” Gillespie wrote in an email.

So there you have it. If you are a DEP employee and you see me, you don’t have to run and hide.

But based on Connie Bersok’s experience of being questioned by department investigators, I wouldn’t be surprised if you if did.

(Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Floridaenvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which may be obtained from brucebritchie@gmail.com.)

 

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