N.J. town to return confiscated soil samples to newspaper

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

HACKENSACK, N.J. — A northern New Jersey newspaper and Paramus officials reached a tentative agreement yesterday to return soil samples seized after the arrest of a reporter and lab technician who were investigating tainted soil at a school.

The Record of Bergen County reported news of the settlement in today's editions. The newspaper said the agreement was reached a day after its publisher, North Jersey Media Group, Inc., filed suit against the city and its police department.

Attorneys for the newspaper and the city had been scheduled to appear before a federal judge yesterday afternoon. The Record was set to argue that police violated the reporter and newspaper's First Amendment rights by taking the samples and that, since the samples had a limited shelf life, they needed to be returned immediately so they could be processed by June 15.

Bruce Rosen, an attorney for the newspaper, was quoted by The Record in today's article as saying, “We're hopeful the testing company will have these samples” by today.

An attorney for Paramus told the newspaper for today's story that the city wasn't interested in hampering the newspaper's investigation into suspected soil contamination.

“The mayor and council, throughout this entire incident, [have] attempted to bring to the public's attention all of the reports, all of the information,” Dennis Oury was quoted as saying. “That's been their focus. We want to continue that. We want to make sure that The Record has access to these vials.

“We were just concerned about the criminal aspects of it. But we seemed to work that out,” Oury said. “And in keeping with their mission of keeping the public apprised of what's going on with this very important issue, we have negotiated with The Record to protect everyone's interest.”

Under the agreement, the newspaper has agreed to drop its claims for damages and legal fees.

The reporter, Michael Gartland, and Thomas Adamkiewicz, who works for Aqua Pro-Tech Laboratories, an environmental testing firm hired by the paper, collected the samples June 2 at the West Brook Middle School in Paramus.

The newspaper has published a series of stories about pesticides found in soil at the school and how school and district officials did not inform parents or staff about the discovery.

Paramus Mayor James Tedesco closed the school while the soil was being removed and while the school grounds and building were tested.

Gartland and Adamkiewicz were arrested after collecting the samples and charged with trespassing. A Record photographer with the duo, Tariq Zehawi, was allowed to leave before the arrests although Zehawi was later charged with trespassing as well.

The newspaper contended that materials journalists gather through the course of their work are also protected by the Privacy Protection Act of 1980.

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