The New Jersey Attorney General’s office must turn over records from a probe into whether state Democratic Party fundraiser George Norcross tried to block a municipal attorney’s reappointment for political reasons.
A state appeals court on Friday affirmed a ruling that an unspecified number of 268 records — withheld on privilege grounds — be disclosed to Palmyra Borough solicitor Ted Rosenberg, who has been fighting for almost a decade to see them.
The ruling in Rosenberg v. New Jersey marks the third time the Appellate Division has reviewed lower court pronouncements on the issue.
The two prior appeals, in 2007 and 2010, reversed decisions by Burlington County judges who had ruled against disclosure because those judges, Assignment Judge John Sweeney, then Judge Thomas Smith, failed to perform the proper document-by-document review with specific findings as to each.
After the second appeal, the case was moved to Monmouth County, where Assignment Judge Lawrence Lawson did the requisite review and explained his findings in a spreadsheet that looked at each factor that must be considered.
Lawson released the spreadsheet to the state but not to Rosenberg, sealing it on the ground that it contained unredacted, privileged information.
Thus, on the current appeal, where the state was challenging Lawson’s determinations, Rosenberg did not even know which documents Lawson had ruled he could have.
Appellate Division Judges Paulette Sapp-Peterson and William Nugent have now directed the Division of Criminal Justice to release the spreadsheet to Rosenberg.
They instructed that the portions pertaining to documents Lawson found were not subject to disclosure be redacted, but that those documents be sufficiently described to enable Rosenberg to seek reconsideration of Lawson’s decision not to release them.
The case arose from a complaint by John Gural, then a Palmyra councilman, that he was being pressured by the president and business development director at the engineering firm where he worked, JCA Associates, to drop Rosenberg as borough solicitor when his contract expired.
The pressure was allegedly coming from Norcross because Rosenberg had run, albeit unsuccessfully, for Burlington County Democratic Party Chairman in 2000 against the candidate backed by Norcross, R. Louis Gallagher, then and now the Burlington city prosecutor.
During the ensuing investigation, state investigators wired Gural, capturing more than 300 hours of his conversations with his boss, Norcross, Gallagher and others. The investigation closed in 2005 with no charges brought except for tax evasion.
The state referred the matter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, then led by Chris Christie, to decide whether Norcross, Gallagher and the people from JCA were part of a chargeable conspiracy to pressure Gural to fire Rosenberg.
In January 2006, Christie informed the state that a federal indictment would be inappropriate, in part because the state had mishandled the investigation through “poor oversight, inexplicable strategic decisions and a failure to fully develop potential evidence.”
The approach taken by the Attorney General’s Office “lends itself to a number of damaging inferences, including the protection of political figures and the manipulation of evidence which, in turn, impairs the integrity of the state investigation,” Christie wrote.
Meanwhile, Rosenberg had asked for and been denied the investigative file, under the Open Public Records Act and the common-law right to know.
After he sued in 2005, Rosenberg obtained at least some of the tapes but still sought the documents, which the state refused to produce, citing the deliberative process and attorney work-product privileges and the need to protect third parties.
Rosenberg, who has kept his job as Palmyra solicitor throughout, says he wants the file so he and Gural can understand what happened.
State investigators had told them indictments were coming and he believes that never occurred because of “pressure placed on the AG’s office.”
He has a previously released audio recording of a meeting that Norcross and his lawyer had with Assistant Attorney General Anthony Zarrillo Jr.
Rosenberg calls it “fairly unusual where a defendant with alleged culpability is given a chance to come and meet with the deputy director of criminal justice and argue the merits of his own case.”
Rosenberg plans to release to the media whatever documents he obtains.
Division of Criminal Justice spokesman Peter Aseltine says it has not yet been decided whether to seek an appeal.
Norcross’ attorney, William Tambussi of Brown & Connery in Westmont, declines comment.
Gallagher did not return a call. •