Reporter Under Fire Defends Receipt of Confidential Records

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – Accusing a grandmother of lying under oath, a reporter testified Wednesday he was “just doing my job” when he left a courthouse with confidential child-abuse records about a kindergartner who brought heroin to school.

News outlets across the state had been focused on the 5-year-old boy since September 2016 when a Trenton charter school teacher found him playing with a packet of heroin.

The child had another 29 packets of heroin in his lunchbox and was put in foster care a month later after school officials found crack cocaine in his personal folder.

Though the boy’s father, Maurice Leonard, and that man’s girlfriend, Turia Justice, were charged with child endangerment in September, they were out on bail in October.

It was at this point, Trentonian reporter Isaac Avilucea says, that he was approached by the boy’s mother, Tashawn Ford, who was fighting Leonard for custody.

After an Oct. 26 custody hearing, state officials followed Avilucea out of the Mercer County Courthouse carrying child-abuse documents about Leonard and Ford’s son.

Avilucea maintains he was given the file, but state officials claim he illegally cajoled the boy’s mother to hand over the documents.

Facing an injunction by Family Court Judge Craig Corson, Avilucea and the Trentonian ultimately redacted much of the information from the story they published on Leonard and Ford’s custody battle.

Both the reporter and the newspaper are fighting the order in court, however, calling the injunction “Big Brotherly” and an attempt to stymie a free press.

During his testimony Wednesday, Avilucea said Ford was “animated” and “cursing” when she handed him a copy of the child-custody document after the Oct. 26 hearing. “You can have it,” Avilucea remembered the woman saying.

He testified that he made a copy and that a deputy attorney general confronted him when he tried to hand the original back to Ford. Avilucea admitted that he continued walking with his copy after a sheriff’s officer had asked him to stop. “It was a public courthouse … I was just there to do my job,” he testified.

A family friend of Ford’s mostly backed up this account. Darren Green testified that when Avilucea asked Ford if he could make her a copy of the document, Ford simply told him to keep it. Green said he wasn’t sure whether Ford had willingly given Avilucea the document or if he had persuaded her to hand it over.

The boy’s grandmother, Tuesday Ford, testified that it was Avilucea who asked Ford for a copy of the child-custody document. “I said, ‘are you allowed to have it?’” the grandmother said she asked Avilucea after the custody hearing. “He said yes.”

Avilucea told the court, however, that the grandmother’s testimony “100 percent false.”

“All lies,” the reporter later wrote on Twitter.

Tashawn Ford took the Fifth Amendment when called to testify.

The only time she spoke was when her mother was asked to identify if Avilucea was in the courtroom. Tuesday couldn’t identify Avilucea, after which Tashawn blurted out, “He cut his hair off!” Avilucea is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.

John Tolleris, the deputy attorney general who had tried to stop Avilucea on Oct. 26, also testified. He quoted a distraught Ford as telling him “they’re going to print it all!” and had asked whether she could sue the Trentonian.

Avilucea told Courthouse News in an interview after Wednesday’s hearing that “it’s asinine” to think he stole the complaint from Ford.

“I’m not God,” he said. “I wouldn’t even have known about the case if she hadn’t come to the Trentonian. And they want to say that I snatched the documents.”

Avilucea added that he doesn’t blame Ford for claiming Avilucea stole the child-custody complaint from her instead of her giving it to him since prosecutors had leverage on her. “I mean, they had her kid,” he said.

Judge Corson acknowledged during the hearing that, if Ford had willingly given Avilucea the documents, she could face as much as 18 months in jail if found guilty of passing along confidential documents.

Avilucea asserted journalistic privilege at several junctures during his testimony. The reporter has railed against the emergency order and Gov. Chris Christie, whom he calls “a media-hating governor who is trying to punish newspapers.”

The Society of Professional Journalists condemned Corson’s emergency injunction against the Trentonian last December, calling it “an intolerable precedent” and noting the information in Avilucea’s report was not even as sensitive as the information from the Pentagon Papers published by The New York Times during the Vietnam War.

“There is no question that this story is messy and needs to be handled with sensitivity … [but] the sensitivity of the topic is not a reason to stop the presses and prevent Avilucea from using material from a report that he obtained legally to tell a story that raises legitimate issues of public concern,” the society said in a Dec. 14 statement.

SPJ gave Avilucea its “Courage Under Fire” award for his reporting last month.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has called the injunction a clear violation of free speech. “The state should not have a right to impede on the rights of a free press,” Ed Barocas, legal director of the ACLU of NJ, said in a statement last October. “This was already a matter of public interest. The court has gone beyond its limitations.”

The attorney general’s office has said it wants to censor information from the confidential complaint to protect the wellbeing of the child. State officials also have alleged that Avilucea “ran from court” after obtaining the confidential document.

Judge Lawrence DeBello issued a Jan. 31 ruling that allowed the Trentonian to republish articles based on the custody battle and drugs, but DeBello prohibited the newspaper from publishing new facts about the underlying child-abuse complaint.

During the hearing before Judge DeBello in January, Deputy Attorney General Erin O’Leary said that “the child has already been subjected to enough harm.”

Avilucea has fought before in court over prior restraint. In 2014, while reporting for the Connecticut Law Tribune, he was barred from publishing an article regarding child custody based on a writ of habeas corpus. The judge in that case reversed the injunction after the state Supreme Court agreed to take on the case and other newspapers published similar reports.

Avilucea, whom colleagues have described as a dogged reporter, also allegedly escalated the current legal issue by refusing a settlement with the state attorney general that would have required the Trentonian to destroy the confidential child-abuse complaint and not publish anything from it in future stories.

In exchange, Avilucea and the newspaper would be free from criminal prosecution.

Avilucea was quoted in the Daily Beast as saying that “I didn’t feel like the Trentonian’s lawyers had my back … this was settled case law long before I was born.”

Meanwhile, the custody battle over the 5-year-old boy has become acrimonious, with Ford and Leonard’s mother battling over where the boy should be placed.

Leonard, 28, has run afoul of the law before. He pleaded guilty in 2006 to first-degree robbery and was charged with murder as a teenager in 2003.

Both sides have until March 24 to submit briefs in the case.

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