The full story behind the conditional retraction of our recent Gina LaPlaca article

By: Jeff Epstein, Editor, Citizens’ Media TV

Citizens’ Media TV conditionally retracts our article from Saturday, July 28, 2017, entitled “Gina LaPlaca’s job application for MHMUA Commissioner was received three days before her predecessor resigned.” The article as originally written was accurate, based on information obtained from Mt. Holly Township via New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) for request.

It is required that authoritatively correct and complete information be provided in response to an OPRA request. We believe strongly that it is reasonable to depend on information received in this manner. However, even those that fulfill OPRA requests can make mistakes. We express respect and thanks to the Mt. Holly Township Clerk for publicly acknowledging her mistake and for quickly providing us with corrected information.

Citizens’ Media TV also acknowledges that Gina LaPlaca should have been consulted before publication. Doing so would have called into question our most critical piece of information. As elaborated below and throughout this post, many questions and concerns remain. However, consulting LaPlaca in advance would have avoided the discussion occurring under intense public scrutiny.

For this, we apologize to Miss LaPlaca. Citizens’ Media TV privately communicated this two days after publication.

While researching our retraction, we have further confirmed that:

  • Calling the recruiting process for the MUA Commissioner position “open and public,” while technically true in the most narrow sense, is not accurate.
  • Information on the Township’s “official” Facebook page was not treated in a manner required of public records, but is the primary reason behind our decision to retract.
  • Facebook allows and potentially allows various types of concerning activities.

To be clear, however, none of our findings change the underlying fact: Gina LaPlaca has consistently stated that she submitted her resume in response to a public notice, and the facts confirm this to be true.

Retraction: The steps we are taking

According to the Committee on Publication Ethics, “retracted articles should not be removed from printed copies of the journal (e.g. in libraries) nor from electronic archives but their retracted status should be indicated as clearly as possible.” Based on this, we have taken the following steps:

  • The original article will remain untouched and uncorrected. A very prominent retraction statement has been placed at the top and bottom of the original article, with a link to the full retraction statement (this post).
  • The title of the original article has been prefixed with “[THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN RETRACTED]”
  • A retraction statement has been posted in all of the same places in which we shared the original article.
  • The original post on Facebook, which has received the most social media traffic, has had its post description updated, such that it begins with a prominent statement (with link) about this retraction.

Westampton Deputy Mayor Abraham Lopez

Mr. Lopez’s livestream was broadcast on Friday, July 27. The article was published in the afternoon on July 28th. Lopez drew many of the same conclusions as Citizens’ Media TV. Although Lopez alerted us to an important detail that we were originally unaware of, he otherwise had no input or influence on our story. Citizens’ Media TV independently verified every piece of evidence. Both his and our conclusions hinged on the information provided to us — separately — by the Mt. Holly Township Clerk. To be clear, Mr. Lopez and Citizens’ Media TV were simultaneously and coincidentally misled by the same information.

We asked Lopez to provide a statement:

It is unfortunate and frankly unheard-of that a municipal employee was asked (likely forced) to hop on Facebook on a Saturday morning to take the fall for what was likely an attempt by Mount Holly Township to avoid informing the public of vacancies on its embattled Municipal Utilities Authority. If past is prologue, we mustn’t put it past the individuals involved in what can be rightfully labeled a syndicate, to fabricate government records, just as they have been able to “accidentally” conceal governmental records by improperly archiving them. Solace can be found in knowing that Westampton Township is pursuing this and other related issues of public corruption in the appropriate arenas, and are glad to know that they are being investigated by the proper authorities. The fight to rid the Rancocas Valley Region of corruption and cronyism continues.

Lopez’s original livestream video and all of its comments are archived at the bottom of this post.

Facebook job posting of January 5, 2017

Our article was primarily undermined by the existence of a public notice on the township’s official Facebook page. The original article was published at 1:09 PM, and the township’s post was brought to our attention by LaPlaca at 2:23 PM.

Here is the notice that was dated January 5th, 2017. The main assertion in our original article was that LaPlaca applied to the position without any notice having ever been provided to the public, implying that it was discovered through insider information. It is now clear that a notice existed twelve days before LaPlaca applied to the position.

Public notice on the township’s website: moved to March

The main location for Mt. Holly Township public notices is the “all news” archives page on their official website. As of this writing, the oldest notice listed in the archive is from August of 2012.

There was, and still is, no notice for Gina LaPlaca’s MUA Commissioner position on the Township’s website. Before writing the original article, we OPRA requested for all notices advertising the position, as published on any website or publication. The only one given in response was one from March 13th. Since that was seven weeks after LaPlaca was appointed, we asked for clarification. The response from the township’s clerk was, “The notice I provided is the only notice published that specifically named vacancies to the MUA.”

To further confirm, we requested all applications received from those expressing interest in the position. We were given the following in response:

  • LaPlaca’s, submitted on January 17th,
  • Ten-year veteran Commissioner Robert Silcox’s, submitted on April 19th, and
  • A third person’s, submitted on April 25th

Therefore, for the position that Gina LaPlaca was appointed to on January 23rd, the only application received was Gina LaPlaca’s.

However, as explained by the clerk on Facebook, on the day of publication, a notice advertising openings actually did exist on January fifth:

It is unclear why the date of an existing entry was changed in this one case, when the text could have easily been duplicated and altered as necessary.

The Internet Wayback Machine proves a post existed on January fifth

The Internet Wayback Machine is a truly independent source of evidence, often used by journalists to avoid linking to resources that may subsequently be changed or deleted. Here is the Wayback Machine’s listing of the township’s news page as it looked on January seventh:

And again as it looks today, as of this writing:

Unfortunately, only the list of titles was archived in the Wayback Machine, the notice itself was not. (This page was not stored again on the Wayback Machine until July.)

Finally, the URLs of these notices prove that the March thirteenth notice was originally located somewhere between January fifth and twelfth:

Date Title URL
3/13/2017 ATTENTION: Mount Holly Township is seeking citizens interested in serving on the following boards/commissions/committees http://twp.mountholly.nj.us/qcontent/NewsFeed.aspx?FeedID=347
1/12/2017 ATTENTION HOMEOWNERS OF MOUNT HOLLY twp.mountholly.nj.us/qcontent/NewsFeed.aspx?FeedID=348
1/5/2017 **Important Notice – Residents who normally have trash collection on Fridays** twp.mountholly.nj.us/qcontent/NewsFeed.aspx?FeedID=346

Corrected information was received after publication

On the Monday after publication, Citizens’ Media TV was provided an email chain showing how the original notice came to be. It was requested by then-Interim Township Administrator Joshua Brown on January fifth, and fulfilled by Deputy Mayor Richard DiFolco only minutes later.

We were also provided a copy of the original notice, as included in a February township email:

Other concerns

  • The January 5th Facebook post had no comments before our article was published. After publication, scores of comments were made in response. Then the township deleted them all. This is because, according to Township Manager Josh Brown, “the conversation had lost its context” because “one of the participants in the conversation removed his comments.” This demonstrates, despite being public records, how casually the information on this “official” Facebook page was treated. The comments were deleted in bulk, yet the post itself is formal enough to be the primary reason behind our retraction. (All comments were screenshot by Citizens’ Media TV and are included at the bottom of this post.)
  • The township did not actively promote the January 5th notice, mostly demonstrated by the fact that LaPlaca was the only applicant. With minimal exception, the post was also not shared before our original article was published.
  • The Facebook platform allows or potentially allows concerning activity:
    • Facebook has a feature that explicitly allows posts to be suppressed from the “News Feed,” which is the primary view seen by all users of Facebook.
    • Facebook allows posts to be entirely hidden from public view. Although Facebook “notifications” prove definitively if a post was unhidden, Facebook itself purges these notifications after only a few months. If the township preserved historical notifications, they likely would have proven that the post was never hidden. (When OPRA requested, the oldest available notification was May 18th.)
    • The reality is that the Facebook platform is not under the control of any of the players in this story. So even seemingly impossible things, such as backdating posts, cannot be entirely ruled out.

Other avoidable errors

The biggest problem with our original article was, of course, that the January fifth post existed when we originally understood it did not. We also apologize to Jason Carty for not consulting him beforehand. Had we done so, the following less severe inaccuracies would not have been made:

  • Although the MHMUA did at one point provide potable water, it no longer does. It only processes sewage.
  • A statement from Pat Macken, Chairperson of the Hainesport Democrat Committee: “The Hainesport Democrat Committee never authorized Jason Carty to be involved with last year’s campaign.” Carty also confirmed that he did not work on this campaign.
  • Katherine Hartman does not represent Carty as a defendant against Westampton. This is because there is no case, and Carty is therefore not a defendant. While Westampton has requested the Burlington County Prosecutor look into things, the prosecutor’s office has not yet acknowledged or responded to the request.
  • We said Carty was “likely” working for Katherine Hartman’s congressional campaign. Carty confirmed that he is in fact, not.

Conclusion

To repeat: Nothing in this post changes the underlying fact: Gina LaPlaca has consistently stated that she submitted her resume in response to a public notice, and the facts confirm this to be true.

It is also true that Mt. Holly Township did not treat it’s “official” Facebook page in the manner that it should be treated, nor was the position actively promoted in any way. Further, the Facebook platform enables some concerning behaviors.

For this and for all the issues raised in this post, we are conditionally retracting our article.

Postscript

Response from Gina LaPlaca

After being given a preview of this retraction article, Gina LaPlaca provided the following statement:

I would like to thank Citizens’ Media TV for continuing to investigate this story and pursuing all of the facts. I am a firm believer that the truth is always the correct answer, even if people don’t always like what they are hearing. I am also appreciative of their apologies — both private and public. Mr. Lopez owes me an apology as well, though I know I am unlikely to receive one from him. I sincerely hope that, in selecting residents to serve on Westampton boards and commissions, Mr. Lopez employs the same open and public process that he claims was lacking in my case.

New Social Media Policy

On August 14th, about two weeks after publication of our original article, Mt. Holly Township released a draft of a new Social Media Policy. The policy makes explicit the right of the township to delete comments and ban users, some of which may not hold up to legal scrutiny.

Appendix: Full OPRA responses

The full set of comments on the January fifth Facebook post, as provided to Citizens’ Media TV by Mt. Holly Township:

The full and unmarked set of comments on the January fifth Facebook post, as screenshot by Citizens’ Media TV:

Consolidated Township and CMTV comments:

Joshua Brown’s resignation letter from his MUA Commissionership:

Westampton Deputy Mayor Abraham Lopez’s original livestream and all its comments:

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