A California-based organization advocating for open government has filed a lawsuit against New Jersey, demanding access to what it says are emails between former Gov. Chris Christie and companies connected to Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
The organization, MapLight, based in Berkeley, California, filed the lawsuit in Mercer County Superior Court on Wednesday, seeking access to emails sent between Christie and members of his administration and Kushner and others from his companies, between Feb. 1, 2017, and Jan. 15, 2018.
According to the lawsuit, the emails are in the possession of South Orange’s Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi. The emails, the lawsuit said, have been labeled by Christie as being “privileged” or “confidential.” MapLight said efforts to obtain the emails have been rebuffed.
Chiesa Shahinian is headed by Christie’s former attorney general, Jeffrey Chiesa, who also briefly served as a U.S. senator for New Jersey in 2013 after the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
“MapLight’s approach is three-fold: to illuminate how money influences politics; to advance reforms that nurture a more responsive, accountable and representative democracy; and to empower voters with the facts so that voter may make educated choices,” MapLight says in the complaint.
The lawsuit claims that Christie, who left office in January, improperly hid emails with Chiesa Shahinian. Also named as a defendant is Joseph R. Klett, executive director of the New Jersey State Archives.
Neither Chiesa nor Christie, who has opened what appears to be a solo practice in Morristown, returned calls seeking comment.
MapLight, in its lawsuit, says any emails between Christie, his administration and Kushner should be considered public records. The complaint alleges that outgoing New Jersey governors typically issue directives on how records are to be treated, and can designate materials privileged or confidential. But the Christie administration implemented a procedure whereby counsel ”designates all emails and electronic documents as ‘confidential’ without reviewing any of them.”
The complaint claims that “the sole discretion to grant or deny access to records is bestowed upon a private citizen (Christie) and his private law firm.”
MapLight is represented by Clifton solo Walter Luers, who specializes in Open Public Records Act cases. He deferred comment to MapLight.
“Transparency is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy,” said Daniel G. Newman, MapLight’s president, in a statement. “State records should be open to the public—not left in the hands of a private lawyer. By releasing the requested public records immediately, public officials in New Jersey can end the secrecy that fuels suspicion and begin to restore trust. Gov. Murphy should take a stand for transparency, not secrecy, by requiring that all records become part of the state archives, instead of hiding behind personal attorneys.”
Newman, in his statement, said his organization wants information about the New Jersey Economic Develop Authority’s renewed $33 million tax credit to Kushner’s One Journal Square Project, a planned mixed-use skyscraper development in Jersey City.
Kushner and Christie do have something of a connection: As U.S. attorney in New Jersey, Christie prosecuted Kushner’s father, Charles Kushner, on charges of tax evasion, illegal campaign contributions and witness tampering. Some reports have speculated that the prosecution hurt Christie’s chances of winning a post in Trump’s cabinet.