Posted: 12/31/2003 5:55:18 AM EDT
Tampa housing agency bans gifts
TAMPA - Amid the festive sweaters, holiday lights and paper snowflakes on display at the city's Construction Services Center this year, there hangs a new sign some have interpreted as slightly Grinch-like:
"Thanks for appreciating our work! We appreciate your kindness and patience! But we can no longer accept any gifts of any kind. "Happy Holidays."'
That bouquet of lilies, sent by a homeowner building an add-on to his Florida room? Send it back.
That holiday fruitcake, baked by an elderly woman grateful for a quick plumbing permit? Sorry, can't take it.
The sign appeared this year, as the city prepares to adopt a tougher ethics code in January.
Previously, city employees could not accept gifts from anyone who might expect a favor in return. Now, they can't take gifts from anyone who does business with the city.
The city ethics policy technically allows for some wiggle room, leaving it debatable, for instance, who might be offering a gift in expectation of a favor. But city housing chief Bob Harrell said it's best to turn them all away.
"I think there are some people who could probably send us a fruitcake," said Harrell, but added: "Why risk it for a fruitcake?"
Harrell said the policy creates an unambiguous rule that will obviate a lot of potential trouble.
"It just makes it a whole lot easier," Harrell said. "People might very generously, very graciously make you some cookies, bring you a pound cake. Maybe that's okay, and then next year they bring you a bottle of champagne, and then it becomes a little questionable.
"Next year, they're sending you tickets to the Lightning, and that's not cool at all."
Over the city's housing offices, of course, looms the shadow of Harrell's predecessor, Steve LaBrake, who is accused of taking far more than cookies and pound cake.
Last month, LaBrake became the center of a 60-count federal indictment alleging that he and his wife accepted bribes and gifts to build their South Tampa dream house. In exchange, prosecutors said, LaBrake used his position to steer taxpayer-funded contacts to a builder and a nonprofit group that were supplying the favors.
For critics, LaBrake embodied what one former council member called a "culture of permissiveness" that flourished under former Mayor Dick Greco, who adamantly defended LaBrake and balked at firing him.
When Mayor Pam Iorio took office this year, "she made sure everybody was perfectly aware of the ethics code and made sure it's followed to a T," said Linda L. Cadle, an office support specialist in Construction Services.
"Inevitably, you're going to get a bottle of wine or champagne from somebody," said Harrell, the new housing chief. Harrell said he always sends the gifts back with a nice note saying he can't take them. But he guesses that before now, when city workers received, say, a tin of cookies, "they probably ate them."
Violators of the new policy will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
"If someone accepts some homemade cookies from a little old lady who appreciates that one of our guys got a street sign cleaned off, then we will talk to him," Harrell said. "If one one of my guys accepts a new Porsche, I'm going to have him arrested."
For those seeking to thank city workers for a job well done, Harrell encourages the sending of a nice note.
There's a new mayor in town that's for sure.