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After endorsing lawyer, the verdict on O'Connell's future at WGRZ is unclear

More than a week ago, WGRZ-TV (Channel 2) weathercaster Kevin O'Connell testified in a case for a law firm he has endorsed on the firm's website.

Now O'Connell is awaiting a verdict on whether he'll be able to stay at the NBC affiliate for another year or more after what Channel 2 and its owner apparently consider a policy violation.

Since he is in contract negotiations, O'Connell clearly can't have picked a worse time to have been involved in a Niagara County case in which the Robert D. Berkun law firm was representing a Wheatfield woman, Sharon Zienteck, in an unsuccessful lawsuit against Niagara County.

The firm quotes an endorsement from O'Connell on its website and the weathercaster said he was paid for his testimony and has testified in many cases.

O'Connell got a laugh after the county's lawyer, Michael F. Perley, asked "Are you a meteorologist?" "No, sir, I'm a Catholic," O'Connell replied.

But Channel 2 management and Tegna, which owns the station, apparently found the idea of O'Connell testifying and giving an endorsement more embarrassing than funny.

Asked a general question about station policies that didn't specifically mention O'Connell's situation, Channel 2 General Manager Jim Toellner gave this explanation in an email: "Our employment and ethics policies do not allow newsroom employees to provide endorsements for commercial businesses. Station management approval is required for testimony and it is rarely given.”

That indicates O'Connell was in violation of those policies.

The general managers of the two other local broadcast stations explained they have similar ethical policies when asked a question that didn't mention O'Connell.

"Any outside activity has to be approved by management," emailed WKBW-TV General Manager Michael Nurse. "We do not allow any outside endorsements of any kind."

However, sources say Channel 7 meteorologists aren't prohibited from testifying in personal injury cases if they get approval.

"Generally we would not want journalists to endorse a commercial product or service," said WIVB-TV (Channel 4 General Manager Dominic Mancuso.  "As for testifying in a case, it would depend on the situation, and we would have to review that on a case-by-case basis."

One reason for those policies is to avoid a conflict-of-interest in case a business that has been endorsed becomes the subject of a news story.

O'Connell, who has been at Channel 2 for 25 years, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. He has been in negotiations to stay with the station after his contract runs out next week.

Kevin O'Connell is not a meteorologist, but he plays one on TV

O'Connell's absence from recent newscasts during the July sweeps has prompted speculation that he is being disciplined.

It is unclear whether the endorsement or the testimony affects the decision on whether he will be retained at Channel 2. If he has violated the policy before, it might have a greater impact.

O'Connell is a talented and popular broadcaster, so Channel 2 could take a public relations hit if it doesn't retain him, especially if it declines to explain why.

On the other hand, the station is overloaded with meteorologists, as it began preparing for O'Connell's departure a few years ago when he said he would be retiring.

Patrick Hammer was hired in 2015 on the assumption that the Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Famer would be leaving in January 2017. Hammer eventually was moved to mornings. Then Heather Waldman was added to a lineup that includes Maria Genero, Jennifer Stanonis and Kevin O'Neill.

Whether O'Connell stays or leaves will affect them all. O'Neill and Stanonis rarely do weather any more.

In late April, O'Connell confirmed he had "discussions with the station about extending, but not for a determined amount of time."

O'Connell, who turns 70 in October, said he wants to continue working the same four-day schedule he has been working under his present contract for perhaps an additional 18 months.

"As long as I feel good – and I do – I would like to work," he said.

The final verdict over whether he'll be granted his wish – or be free to make more endorsements – should come next week.

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