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Reporters and editors from Gannett New Jersey newspapers have won the 2004 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting. The journalists won for their series exposing a government system that allows elected officials to exploit their positions for personal gain.

The $35,000 annual prize, presented by the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, recognizes the year’s outstanding work in investigative journalism that led to direct results.

Gannett New Jersey reporters, led by Asbury Park Press investigations editor Paul D’Ambrosio, investigated the New Jersey Legislature to “help voters better understand their lawmakers’ financial interests” before the Nov. 4, 2003 state election.

The series documented how some legislators in New Jersey “hire their relatives, pad their pensions or hand out millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to employers, friends and party bosses.”

Among the examples cited:

� New Jersey State Senate co-president John O. Bennett III (R-Monmouth), made “millions of dollars for his law firms over the years through dozens of no-bid public contracts – many of which paid him a personal salary.”

� Sen. Wayne R. Bryant (D-Camden), co-chairman of the New Jersey Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, has “made a career out of helping himself and his family dip into public funds and jobs.”

According to the newspaper, Bryant collects $167,000 a year from four taxpayer-supported positions. His wife, son, two brothers and a sister-in-law earn another $518,000 from government jobs.

The Gannett New Jersey series drew immediate public and governmental reaction. Eight lawmakers lost their seats in the November election, the largest number of incumbents defeated since 1991.

In six of the campaigns, including that of Sen. Bennett, ethics and nepotism were the key issues, according to Gannett New Jersey.

“The seven Gannett New Jersey newspapers did nothing less than bring ethics to government in the state of New Jersey,” judges wrote in the citation announcing the winner of the Selden Ring Award.

“There have been many stories over the years about individual incidents of corruption in New Jersey,” the judges declared. “This series distinguished itself by focusing on a system that made the outrageous legal. The newspapers buttressed their reporting with strong editorial support, and voters responded.

“This is a classic story in the finest tradition of the Selden Ring Award.”

Gannett New Jersey newspapers include the Asbury Park Press (Neptune), Courier-News (Bridgewater), Courier-Post (Cherry Hill), Home News Tribune (East Brunswick), Daily Record (Morristown), The Daily Journal (Vineland) and the Ocean County Observer (Toms River).

In April, members of the Gannett New Jersey team will visit Los Angeles for the award presentation, meet with students and participate in a symposium on investigative journalism.

In addition to the “Profiting From Public Service” series, two other projects were recognized for their outstanding work as finalists for the 2004 Ring Award:

� “Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths,” reported by Michael D. Sallah, Mitch Weiss and Joe Mahr of The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, brought to light the “secret war crimes of an elite Army fighting unit” in the Vietnam War that “committed the longest series of documented atrocities against civilians and prisoners of the conflict, leading to the death of hundreds.” In addition, the Blade report revealed how “the U.S. military concealed” these alleged crimes from the American public.

� “The American Hospital System,” reported by Lucette Lagnado for The Wall Street Journal, exposes the hospital industry’s practice to bill the uninsured more than anyone else for the care they receive. She also reported on the “ruthless extremes” to which hospitals go to collect and on the suffering that results.

The judges also acknowledged the excellent nominations from mainstream and alternative newspapers across the country, as well as from leading national magazines. In total, 98 nominations were submitted for the 2004 award, up 25 percent from the previous year.

“The breadth, scope and quality of the entries was the strongest in years,” said Michael Parks, director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. “Investigative journalism is alive and well at America’s newspapers.”

The 2004 Selden Ring Award was selected by a distinguished panel of journalists and educators, including Lorraine Branham, director, School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin; Barney Calame, deputy managing editor, Wall Street Journal; Steven Engelberg, managing editor, Portland Oregonian; William Gaines, professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor, Washington Post; Pamela Maples, project editor, Dallas Morning News; and Shawn McIntosh, deputy managing editor, Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting was established in 1989 by the late Selden Ring, a Southern California business leader and philanthropist.

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