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The (Bergen) Record moved out of their Hackensack office building in 2009, a year after the massive layoffs of reporters. The building was later demolished. (Photo: Facebook.)

The time the DEP thought a reporter stole documents

Attorney General declined criminal prosecution of Bergen Record reporter

By David Wildstein, December 23 2018 8:20 pm

Here’s a bizarre story: the chief of staff to the mayor of Trenton has named Trentonian reporter Isaac Avilucea as a suspect in the burglary of his City Hall office.

Police are investigating Yoshi Manale’s accusation and the Trentonian quickly came to the defense of their reporter.

Allegations that reporters unlawfully obtain documents happens every once in a while.

Two years ago, the state Attorney General’s office alleged that Avilucea illegally obtained a child custody report.  A judge later ruled that the documents were legitimately.

To their credit, the Trentonian has been covering the story about their own newspaper.  That’s not always the case.

Back in September 2008, there were allegations that Jeff Pillets, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for The (Bergen) Record, had taken some files from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Pillets had gone to the DEP to look at files he had requested under the Open Public Records Act for a story he was working on regarding the failed EnCap project.

A few days later, the DEP realized that some of the files were missing.

“At first when he was asked if he had the files, he denied,” DEP spokeswoman Elaine Makatura told me in an e-mail at the time. “Only after a number of phone calls and DEP telling him we could not answer his questions without the files, did he then admit that perhaps he did have them.”

Since the issue involved a case that the U.S. Attorney was reviewing, the agency said they notified the state Attorney General’s office.

Pillets sent me an e-mail to explain his side of the story.

“At 4:30 pm they were closing up shop and I had to get out of there. I left a note on the file asking them not to put it away because I would be back later in the week,” Pillets said.  “As I rushed to leave, I inadvertently mixed in a couple of public files with some of my own I was carrying.”

I contacted Frank Scandale, who was the North Jersey Media Group vice president/editor at the time to ask what was going on  He refused to confirm or deny any investigation of his reporter and referred questions to the attorney general’s office.

A week later, I received an e-mail from Jennifer Borg, whose family owned The Record at the time.

“I am unaware of any investigation being conducted by the state or any other authority. And to overstate it, nobody at North Jersey media group is aware of any investigation by the state or any other authority,” Borg said.  “We have not been contacted by any state or authority, and Jeff has not been contacted by any state or authority. It’s a non-issue. And if the state is indeed investigating Jeff, I wish someone would tell us about it.”

That contradicted what the DEP official said in her statement.

“DEP alerted the AG’s office because it involved a case where there was federal interest. Mr. Pillets personally returned files later that day and they were taken into custody by a representative of the AG’s office,” Makatura said.  “Since I and my staff were interviewed by an investigator, I assumed there was an investigation. I cannot confirm status.”

Pillets said there were no state troopers involved in the issue and that someone from the attorney general’s office was present when he showed up to return the documents.

“We talked for 5 minutes and that was that,” he said.

David Wald, a former Star-Ledger reporter who was working as a spokesman for Attorney General Anne Milgram, declined to comment. That’s standard operating procedure for law enforcement.

A source in Milgram’s office, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the state would not file criminal charges against Pillets.

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