Sunday, August 07, 2005

Published in the July 28, 2005 issue of The Courier

My opinion: Jennings Appointment by GOP is Suspect


My opinion: Jennings Appointment by GOP is Suspect The recent coverage of the Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station Project has brought up a disturbing side of political life in our area. Yet, there is another chapter to this story that has not been brought up previously, but is going to be right now.

About a year ago, during July, The Courier's staff reporter, Jackie Corley, first discovered some information relating to campaign contributions made to Sen. Joe Kyrillos, R-Monmouth/Middlesex, by the Columbia Group, its employees and its owner, Jack Morris. The contributions were, in my opinion, substantial.

Frankly, at the time, I didn't believe the story was a good fit for The Courier, but I did give a call to someone I truly do admire, The Trenton Times' editor, Peter Callas, and wanted to know if his newspaper was interested in the story and Ms. Corley's information. I offered this to the Times after consulting with Ms. Corley. I had met Mr. Callas briefly before and his newspaper credentials are superb.

Well, Peter referred me to his then-Trenton Bureau chief, Michael Jennings. Ms. Corley, enthusiastic that this story get out, said she would be happy to meet with Mr. Jennings, in Trenton, and give him the various Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) documents she had researched, as well as some other related clippings.

She even made a Power Point presentation for Mr. Jennings, to help expedite her briefing to him.
The whole point of her story asked: Was the Columbia Group named as the lead developer in Matawan Borough as a result of very substantial campaign contributions made to Sen. Kyrillos and the Republican Party by the developer?

I accompanied Ms. Corley to Trenton on a particularly hot July day last year and watched as she handed over reams of information to Mr. Jennings, who was wide-eyed at times over the money transfers between Mr. Morris, his companies and his employees, and Sen. Kyrillos and various entities of the Republican Party that Mr. Kyrillos was affiliated with.

Why is Mr. Kyrillos so important? Because he involved himself with the train station project by attempting to lobby officials in Aberdeen about choosing the Columbia Group, despite the fact that impartial engineers determined that Columbia Group's plan did not conform to the overall vision of the train station project.
Well, Mr. Jennings was grateful for the information and said he was going to write a story about it after getting Mr. Kyrillos's side of the story, not to mention Columbia Group's. He even made the trek from Trenton to speak with Aberdeen Township's manager, Mark Coren, and interview him.

Mr. Jennings communicated sometimes with Ms. Corley during this process, by e-mail, and, as a courtesy, let her know how the story was developing. Then, one day, the e-mails stopped. The last thing I remember was that Mr. Jennings was going to be asking some "hard questions" to Mr. Kyrillos and a Republican legislative group involved with Mr. Kyrillos that received money from Morris, his employees and his companies.

Time came and went and, a few months later, I was reading, a popular site on the web for people interested in Garden State politics, and I discovered a small announcement: Mr. Jennings had been named as spokesman for the same group he was planning to question. As a matter of fact, this Republican Senate Committee had, as one of its leaders, Sen. Kyrillos.

I informed Ms. Corley, who was incredibly disturbed by the events. Mr. Coren later contacted the Trenton Times and was told that another reporter would write the story regarding the train station. However, the story, which appeared in the Trenton Times on August 22, 2004, was something very watered down and barely mentioned the donations made by Morris to Republicans that intervened on his behalf with at least one municipal official in Aberdeen.

This situation leads me to certain conclusions and judgments. If Mr. Jennings had a job application pending with Senate Republicans, then why would he accept and work on a story that could potentially damage his future employer? In fact, simply accepting the information would be unethical, not to mention holding conversations with other reporters about information that was potentially harmful to his future employers. So, if Mr. Jennings had a resume in already, at the time he was questioning Mr. Kyrillos about this story, it would be unethical for him to work on the story. If he put in a resume for Mr. Kyrillos's consideration during his research into this story, that would be even more unethical. But, it had to be either before he started working on this story or while it was being researched, because Mike Jennings, despite all of his research, did not write one word about the Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station Project in his newspaper.

In my experience, reporters, and especially bureau chiefs for major newspapers, do not waste a lot of time researching stories they do not intend to write.

Nevertheless, this story was thoroughly researched, as Aberdeen's Mr. Coren would have to acknowledge if he were asked. I know Mr. Jennings was excited about the story, as Ms. Corley and I saw him accept the research and he informed us of his intentions. He never said anything about a potential conflict of interest involving either Mr. Kyrillos or any Republican legislative body, which he accepted a job with prior to this story being written.

I am not going to make the leap and say that Mr. Jennings was bribed with a job for not writing the real story about the Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station Project.

I am saying that his actions are very suspect, and I believe they were unethical, from my point of view.

I still believe that Mr. Callas is one of the finest journalists I have ever met. I still have a great deal of confidence in The Trenton Times and its parent company, Newhouse Publishing (also owners of The Star-Ledger and The Staten Island Advance, among others). But, Mr. Jenning's actions do not pass the "sniff test" in my book.

In journalism, ethics is a popular dialogue, in print and in classrooms around the country. Everyone seems intent on lecturing everyone else on lofty ideas and such. In fact, the Founding Fathers encouraged the idea of a free press that was adversarial with government, as this was another check and balance against tyranny in government.

I must say, though, that the pattern of contributions made by the Columbia Group, its affiliated companies, its owner and its employees, coupled with Mr. Kyrillos's intervention into a situation he had, in my opinion, absolutely no business being involved with is suspect. With this said, Mr. Jennings being hired to a position with the very political organization he was investigating for possible wrongdoing is also very suspect.

The possibility that Mike Jennings was hired by Mr. Kyrillos and the GOP in Trenton to suppress a story that would have a very damaging impact on Mr.

Kyrillos and the entire Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station Project, not to mention the all-Republican Matawan Borough Council, is present until an adequate explanation can be offered.

While this situation does not reflect on anyone other than Mr. Jennings, it is a situation that highlights the slippery slope of journalistic ethics, government, big money, developers and newspaper reporting.

Mr. Jennings should never have accepted the information about Mr. Kyrillos, the Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station or the briefing by Ms. Corley if he intended to seek employment with the GOP, in a position that Mr. Kyrillos could influence.

I do believe there is more here than meets the eye.

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