Pennsylvania state police officer tips off newspaper

| 15 Feb 2012 | 10:44

    Call tells of summons to be issued to parent for making false claims against local principal CHESTER, N.Y. — The Township Journal received an unusual call this week from a Pennsylvania State Police officer. The officer, Mark Pizzuti, called to tell the paper that the state police were arresting Mary Marino for making a false accusation against Ernest Jackson, currently the principal of St. Michael’s School in Netcong, and a resident of Milford, Pa. The police use the term “arrest” to include issuing a summons. The call struck editors of the paper, and the parent company Straus News, as odd. It is unusual for a state police officer to call a newspaper about an arrest before it is made. “In close to 30 years of reporting and editing for newspapers in New York and Pennsylvania, I’ve never had a Pennsylvania State Police officer call me to provide unsolicited information about something the agency was investigating or had investigated,” said David Hulse, editor of the Straus News publication in Pennsylvania, The Pike County Courier. Hulse said he has been asking for incident reports from the state police without success since 2007. Pizzuti told The Township Journal on Tuesday, Dec. 20, that the summons hadn’t yet been filed with the judge. A call to Judge Jay Rose’s chambers showed that the summons was filed the next day, Dec. 21. When contacted by the paper, Marino expressed dismay but said she wasn’t surprised. She said she had talked to Officer Pizzuti over the phone on several occasions but had never filed a written complaint with the state police. She said she didn’t know the Pennsylvania State Police were investigating Jackson. The summons states that on Nov. 13 Marino made a “false report” incriminating another. When asked why he called The Township Journal, Pizzuti said he was doing so as a “professional courtesy” because he knew that the paper and its sister publications have been reporting on several incidents that occurred under Ernest Jackson’s tenure as principal at a Chester, N.Y., middle school, and his hiring at St. Michael’s. The day after the police called the paper, The Township Journal received an e-mail from the diocese of Paterson, which oversees St. Michael’s, saying that the diocese investigated Jackson before hiring him (please see “A message from the diocese”). One lawsuit brought by Marino and another family alleges Jackson illegally strip-searched their children in 2008. Some depositions in that case were taken in November and December this year. Another matter involves Jackson and another school official’s decision in 2009 to go to the home of two teenage boys who were absent to verify that they were in fact sick. Pizzuti told The Township Journal that he made the decision to move against Marino because he found no evidence to substantiate her allegations. Pizzuti said his investigation of the allegations were based on previous investigations done by authorities in New York. However, it is unclear which previous investigations he is referring to. What investigations? In the home visit case from 2009, the Chester Village Police said they found no wrongdoing and closed the case after a three-week investigation. But the village police chief, Peter Graziano, and mayor, Philip Valastro, have repeatedly refused the paper’s request for proof that an investigation occurred. In response to Freedom of Information requests for witness statements, the paper was told the records were sealed to protect people’s privacy. When asked to provide the legal certification that the records had been sealed, the village police refused the request and the Orange County District Attorney’s offices never responded. In other cases, the Chester Town police readily handed over witness statements. First Amendment and Straus News lawyer Laura Handman said Graziano’s reasons for withholding the witness statements and certification “constitute a violation of New York’s Freedom of Information law.” The paper has also been unable to pin down whether the Chester School District ever followed through on the statement made by the school district’s lawyer, Steve Latino, that the district was “doing a follow-up investigation” in the home visit case. A Freedom of Information Law request for the witness statements filed with the school district in December 2010 went unanswered. The school’s attorney said at a meeting that the district was “not getting cooperation from the authorities” in the home visit incident. Valastro, the mayor, responded that “the records are sealed because there are no charges.” The Chronicle, sister paper to The Township Journal, has reason to believe that key participants in the home visit case were never interviewed by New York authorities, and the case never reached the hearing stage at the New York State Department of Education. In the strip-search case, The Chronicle did receive a copy of the one-page report issued by attorney Christine Moore hired by the Chester School District which found no evidence that Jackson acted improperly when searching Anthony Marino in 2008. It is unclear whether Pizzuti used this report when conducting his own investigation into Jackson. A message from the diocese The Township Journal on Dec. 21 received the following message from Jonathan Jaffe, spokesperson for the Diocese of Paterson schools: "The Diocese of Paterson conducts a thorough investigation into the background of all prospective employees to ensure the safety of the entire school community. All protocols were followed during the interview process for Mr. Jackson, consistent with the protocols in place for all individuals considered for employment. "It is important to note that Mr. Jackson was hired for this administrative post because he was the most qualified among the candidates interviewed. He has been a superb addition to our team at St. Michael’s. Mr. Jackson has our full support.”