NO TAKERS: American Express Publishing’s best-known magazines — Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine and Departures — are all about the good life. But employees at the company are leading a somewhat more Spartan existence these days, thanks to a tough new stance on gifts and freebies. Over the past few weeks, word has filtered down to staffers from the top that they are not to accept extravagant gifts or services from business contacts, and that even inexpensive presents should be reported to a supervisor. Insiders say the new policy has sowed a certain amount of discontent in the ranks, and not just from greedheads reluctant to pay their own way at restaurants or part with their Christmas swag. “Everyone’s worried it’s going to create a large amount of new paperwork,” said one source. There’s also the question of how costly a present has to be to qualify as extravagant; no exact dollar amount has been specified. In response to concerns over the change, said the source, AmEx Publishing president Ed Kelly “assured people it wouldn’t affect their day-to-day lives.”

What was the impetus for the crackdown? It’s not entirely clear. Several sources said they had been told the new policy was handed down by American Express corporate, which, like other financial institutions, is facing heightened scrutiny from regulators and law-enforcement officials. But an American Express spokeswoman, while confirming the existence of the new guidelines, said they were specific to the publishing unit, and originated there. “There have been no changes on the corporate end,” she added. The rule change also doesn’t appear to have come out of Time Inc., which oversees AmEx Publishing through a management agreement (and has a stringent ethics policy of its own).

Curiously, a spokeswoman for the publishing unit refused to acknowledge that there has been any policy change. “We’ve always had a code of conduct about gift-giving and receiving,” she said. “This is a routine part of doing business today as a Fortune 100 company.” A number of AmEx insiders were uncharacteristically guarded when asked about the topic; said one, “It’s too sensitive.”
Jeff Bercovici

HAPPY B(-LIST) DAY: Bette Midler! David Cassidy! Art Garfunkel‘s wife! These are not the sort of “celebrities” readers of Us Weekly typically go crazy for, but there they are in the new issue, living it up at Rolling Stone’s 1,000th-issue party. (Or, as a headline would have it, “Rolling Stone’s Rockin’ Party!”) Nowhere in the two-page photo story does it mention that Jann Wenner (who is pictured with Midler, in whose company he recently traveled to Bhutan) owns both magazines. A spokeswoman for Wenner —who also “invited” Us to cover his 60th birthday party in January — had no comment.

This story first appeared in the May 12, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.