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Cartoon from PolitickerNJ in December 2007. (Artist: Rob Tornoe).

The O’Toole Chronicles: Off the Record

By Kevin O'Toole, May 03 2022 12:01 am

I was chatting with my friend, Anthony Albanese, the other day and he unintentionally, or purposely, gave me an idea for my column. An idea that I had previously toyed with for a while.

Anthony recalled that over 20 years ago he was a “body man” for then Acting Governor Donald DiFrancesco at an event in Morris County. The Acting Governor/Senate President made mention of something fairly confidential and immediately stated “this is off the record.” As Anthony recalls it, the Chief of Staff, Kevin Davis, exclaimed at the time – “NOTHING is ever off the record!”

Let’s dig into this theory.

I have interacted with reporters since the mid 1980’s and have grown real relationships with a few, but have always understood that they have a job to do and that most are hardworking and honest brokers. My experience is also that some reporters have a tendency to overreach or sensationalize because they are dying to impress a boss or colleague in a never ending quest to create a larger story. On rare occasions, some reporters reach a conclusion long before they solicit a reaction or comment from you, even if you are the focus of the story.

Again, I have worked with many reporters and respect their job as independent seekers of truth. Let me add, that there aren’t enough reporters today who are actually working their craft. The decline of traditional reporting is startling, alarming and disappointing.

I recall my moment in December of 2007.

I was waiting for action to start at the Assembly Budget Committee (TST = Trenton Standard Time) and was jockeying around with some statehouse reporters. Even though I consider myself to be inherently shy, I would on occasion entertain questions from the handful of reporters patiently waiting in the gallery for the Committee to start. The Budget and Judiciary committees usually provided me with enough material to joust with a reporter or two, or drop a story, or shape an issue that was coming down the pipe. All in the name of good government and all in a day’s work.

On this particular day, I was talking to a reporter from the Star Ledger and I stated upfront, which is my habit, this is all off the record until we agree otherwise. The reporter agreed and we talked about a few issues including the incoming class of new Senators to be sworn in the following month – of which I was to be a member.

The turnover rate in the Senate is usually very low, so it was very unusual that 9 of the 17 GOP Senators were newly elected. Given the stodgy composition of the Senate (I first served when I was 37 years young and 44 years old my second go around), I had this inner voice telling me that turnover is good and it was time for the younger generation to leave their mark.

With that being my state of mind, the reporter asked me how I felt about the significant turnover and would there be any changes. I laughed for a minute and said something that was snarky (I know, very unusual for me) and stupid. I said, “Well, they won’t be serving tapioca and oxygen for lunch anymore.”

I reiterated that it was off the record and moved along.

Where was Kevin Davis when you needed him.

I pick up the newspaper the next morning (which was actually delivered to my driveway) and boy was I surprised that my “off the record’ comment was there in black and white. Needless to say, this caused a bit of a ruckus and a few Senators lashed out. Welcome back to the big leagues. It didn’t help matters when prominent PolitickerNJ cartoonist Ron Tornoe published a depiction of me feeding one retiring Senator tapioca as a tank of oxygen was stashed under his wheelchair — not cool.

I navigated through and survived that crisis. I later saw this reporter and asked what was with the breach of protocol of publishing my “off the record” comment. She simply responded that it was “too good to let go.”  But I couldn’t stay mad at the reporter too long, because before I had a chance to forgive her for breaking the “off the record” rules, she left the Star-Ledger to take a job as a senior aide to the Democratic governor, Jon Corzine. She left journalism and went through the revolving door, armed with a few years’ worth of “off the record” conversations. Now she had a vested interest in defeating some of my friends and maybe even me losing the next election.

Lesson learned. There are no off the record conversations with reporters – especially when they are funny because they are true.

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