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Reporter Fabricated Sources In College Debt Story

The weekly alternative newspaper The Village Voice has pulled a freelance writer’s piece on college debt after concluding he fabricated sources and quotes, prompting a separate review by the Daily News of dozens of articles the writer contributed to the tabloid.

The Voice’s editor, Tony Ortega, said in a statement posted on its website that New York-based writer Rob Sgobbo had invented a Berkeley College student and a U.S. Government Accountability Office spokesman quoted in a Wednesday article about for-profit colleges. Both organizations contacted the Voice and said the people did not exist.

“The Voice apologizes sincerely to Berkeley College and the GAO that this false material appeared in our education supplement,” Ortega wrote.

Sgobbo did not immediately return a telephone message left by The Associated Press on Friday. He said he hadn’t fabricated any information in pieces he wrote for the Daily News, the newspaper said in a statement.

Since February his byline has appeared 86 times on Daily News stories, including several about city schools.

“The Daily News has terminated its relationship with freelancer Rob Sgobbo,” the newspaper said in a written statement. “He has assured us he never fabricated anything that appeared in the Daily News; however, we are reviewing his stories for any inconsistencies.”

The Voice said it removed Sgobbo’s article “For-Profit Blues” from its website after learning he had invented student Tamicka Bourges, who claimed she had become saddled with debt while attending Berkeley College, a New Jersey-based business school.

“My parents never made a lot of money, so I was hoping that, with a business bachelor’s degree, I could go into banking,” the article quoted Bourges as saying.

Sgobbo also quoted a New York high school teacher, Richard Wieda, as saying that Bourges had telephoned him in tears because of frustration over her college debts. Wieda told the AP he had spoken to Sgobbo about for-profit colleges but had never mentioned Bourges.

“I don’t know that student, and I did not say those things,” Wieda said.

Berkeley College told the Voice it had no record that such a student existed, the Voice said. College spokeswoman Ilene Greenfield said she notified the Voice after failing to find a Tamicka Bourges in the college’s database of students. The Woodland Park, N.J.-based college has eight campuses in New York and New Jersey.

Sgobbo also invented GAO spokesman Matt Fraser and falsely claimed to have spoken with an employee at Berkeley College, Ortega wrote.

GAO spokesman Chuck Young said Friday an agency employee spotted the story with a quote attributed to Fraser. He said no one by that name works there, and there was no record of Sgobbo contacting the agency.

Ortega did not return a telephone call or an e-mail seeking further comment Friday.

The Daily News is the United States’ seventh-biggest newspaper, with an average weekday circulation of 512,000, the Audit Bureau of Circulations says. The weekly Voice has a circulation of about 191,000.

A handful of journalists have been dismissed over the past decade for fabrication issues. New York Times reporter Jayson Blair resigned from the paper in 2003 after it became clear he had engaged in plagiarism and fabrications in his work.

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