By: DOROTHY GIOBBE
AN INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER for the Record, in Bergen County, N.J., resigned from the newspaper after he was cleared in an internal inquiry that examined whether he used his newspaper affiliation to benefit a side business.
Reporter Michael Moore said his early November departure was due partly to a lack of support from Record management in the wake of the inquiry. Additionally, he said, his reporting was stifled because of political pressure exerted by New Jersey state politicians.
The Record steadfastly maintains that politics play no part in editorial policies and that the inquiry into Moore’s side business was conducted fairly. Editor Glenn Ritt said the newspaper is “terribly saddened” by the entire situation.
Digging In The Dirt
In addition to his job at the Record, Moore is the owner of Dig Dirt, a company which his brother helps to run. Dig Dirt bills itself as an “information broker” (its Web page can be accessed through http://www.pimall.com).
Essentially, the company allows customers outside of New Jersey to buy personal information about people. The data is culled from public records and Dig Dirt arranges and sells it in categories, such as “Bad Doctors,” “Bad Lawyers” and “Bad Landlords.”
Reporters often have access to personal data through state Department of Motor Vehicle records. In New Jersey, access to DMV records is quasi-restricted, though properly credentialed journalists qualify for use. In fact, Record reporters comprise a majority of DMV search requests, according to DMV spokesman John Graf.
When Moore’s side business was publicized in articles in other newspapers, Record management launched an internal inquiry into whether the reporter had used sanctioned DMV searches to benefit Dig Dirt.
Though the inquiry found no improper behavior on Moore’s part, editor Ritt said the reporter’s ownership of Dig Dirt “very clearly created the appearance and potential for a conflict of interest,” according to a staff memo. The memo added that disciplinary action was taken against Moore.
Moore is peeved about the way the inquiry was handled, and says the newspaper should have brought in an objective professional.
“I think it’s a problem when colleagues are actually investigating you with the
permission of the newspaper,” Moore said.
” . . . it’s like a bad movie, and that’s the main factor why I couldn’t go back to work there.”
He added that the paper refused to publicly support him after he was cleared. Specifically, Ritt told the Newark Star-Ledger that the Record was conducting an inquiry into Moore’s side business, but after Moore was cleared, no public statement came from the Record and no
follow-up appeared in the New Jersey media.
“Ritt made comments to the news media saying that I was under investigation, and for him not to release comments to the news media after I was cleared ? I just don’t understand that,” Moore said.
Jennifer Borg, vice president of Human Resources at the Record, contends the inquiry was properly conducted by Ritt and managing editor Vivian Waixel, with the “input and advice” of Moore’s two immediate supervisors.
The newspaper didn’t issue a statement to the media, Ritt said, because, “It is not our intention to release the results of our investigation to the press. We deal with [ethical] issues internally.”
Borg added, “There is no obligation on our part to give the public the results of that investigation.”
Moore has operated Dig Dirt since last spring. While Record executives say they didn’t know about the company until it was brought to their attention, Moore wonders how and why Dig Dirt suddenly became a public issue.
The New Jersey political environment this fall was highly charged. Democratic Congressman Robert Torricelli was neck and neck with Republican Dick Zimmer in one of the dirtiest U.S. Senate races in the country.
During the campaign, Moore co-wrote two unflattering articles about Torricelli’s relationship with Korean businessman Harvard Jee, who fled the U.S. following a 1984 indictment on charges of bilking $34 million from three banks.
The articles attracted national attention and put the Torricelli campaign on the defensive during the critical home stretch of the race.
A political ally and longtime friend of Torricelli’s, New Jersey Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg, held a press conference in late October on one of her pet issues: access to DMV records. Weinberg believes the records are too easily available to potential criminals.
In her press conference, Weinberg used two companies as examples to decry the ease with which she said she was able to obtain personal information via the Internet by using a sample license plate number.
One of the companies was Brooklyn-based Compinstall. The other was Moore’s Dig Dirt. But Compinstall isn’t accessible through the Internet, and Dig Dirt never performed a search or yielded any results for Weinberg.
As soon as Moore was linked with Dig Dirt, the Record began its inquiry and Moore stopped writing articles for the paper.
The suggestion that she singled out Dig Dirt to get Moore to back off of Torricelli, Weinberg said, “is offensive and unrealistic.”
The assemblywoman contends that she was unaware that Moore owned Dig Dirt. She said that although she knew Moore was a Record reporter, she had “no idea” that he wrote the articles about Torricelli.
“If someone had asked me who had the byline on the [Torricelli] story, I couldn’t have told them,” Weinberg said.
So, out of hundreds of private investigative and “information brokers” listed in the phone book and on the Internet, why did Weinberg pick Dig Dirt?
Essentially, Weinberg said, because someone dropped it in her lap.
For almost a year, Weinberg has been speaking publicly about the issues of access to DMV records and privacy concerns.
The New Jersey state legislature is working on a bill that would prohibit the DMV from giving that information to anyone except law enforcement, car insurance agencies, and properly credentialed reporters. The legislature also is considering whether licensed private investigators should be excluded from access to DMV records.
Weinberg said that Richard O’Neil, a constituent with a private investigative business, contacted her office because he was furious that licensed private investigators might be excluded while “information brokers” are free to sell similar information over the Internet. O’Neil gave her the name of two companies ? Dig Dirt and Compinstall.
Weinberg said that O’Neil is “somebody I know as a constituent ? I just knew him casually, he’s not even from the same political party.”
When O’Neil gave her the names of Compinstall and Dig Dirt, Weinberg used those two as examples in her press conference, she said.
Did Weinberg ever question O’Neil’s motivation for giving her the names of Dig Dirt and Compinstall?
“No, because [O’Neil] had a pretty legitimate reason for being angry from his point of view,” Weinberg said, noting the potential exclusion of licensed private investigators.
O’Neil confirmed that he passed along the information about Compinstall and Dig Dirt to Weinberg. O’Neil knew Moore, and was aware of Dig Dirt. He used Compinstall, he said, because the company recently sent out marketing literature which he showed to Weinberg.
“I talked to Loretta and gave her a copy of the postcard and said this isn’t the only one, there are thousands of people selling information online,” O’Neil said.
While he didn’t mention Moore by name, O’Neil said, he told Weinberg, “You’ve got a guy who’s a reporter at the Record selling this stuff,” and named Dig Dirt.
(A representative from Compinstall declined to comment).
O’Neil said that he’s sorry that the ensuing controversy ended with Moore’s resignation from the Record.
“I feel bad for him, I really do,” O’Neil said. “I
didn’t expect it to come to a situation of reporter’s ethics. I was just trying to illustrate the absurdity of the issue and I wanted something done about it.”
O’Neil also spoke to a Michelle Pellemans, a reporter for the Gloucester County Times in southern New Jersey. O’Neil says he told her about Moore’s connection with Dig Dirt, which Pellemans reported in an article. Shortly after, the Record inquiry began.
Moore also contends his reporting at the Record was stifled in part because of Torricelli’s relationship with the publisher of the newspaper, Malcolm Borg.
Moore and Tom Fitzgerald, the co-writer on the two Torricelli articles, were planning a third installment on Torricelli’s relationship with the fugitive. The piece hadn’t been written yet, but Moore contends the information in the planned article would have been “damning” to Torricelli.
Waixel said the possible third installment is “an ongoing situation” and that, the newspaper wanted to make sure “we could back up what we were writing.”
Ritt added that, “We continue to work at the investigation and we sure hope it gets finished soon.” He added that Moore’s activities “interfered with the momentum” of the story.
A Record source close to the situation said it’s “hard to tell” why the story wasn’t pursued.
“There was something weird going on, but in journalism there are enough gray areas so that it’s not so easily explained, although I tend to agree with Moore,” the source said. “It was a judgment call.”
Asked whether the newspaper is pursuing the story in Moore’s absence, the source said “there doesn’t seem to be much of a push toward it.”
Moore said that Record publisher Borg’s relationship with Torricelli may have affected editorial policy.
“Strange things go on at election time,” Moore said. “Torricelli had a direct line to the publisher. Who knows what they were talking about? I think it’s a problem, and I think it’s troubling.
“I think Borg being in contact with Torricelli
doesn’t help when we’re trying to get our story in the newspaper,” Moore added. “And I think if [Borg] was talking to Torricelli, he should have briefed the editors.”