The press can’t have access to records of hiring recommendations from the New Jersey governor’s office for Port Authority jobs, a state appeals court ruled on Wednesday.
The Open Public Records Act exempts any employment records maintained by the state, not just those for state employees, the Appellate Division held in North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. New Jersey, A-5446-11.
The OPRA request in the case came from The Record of Hackensack, which reported in January 2012 that Gov. Chris Christie had, in his first two years in office, recommended 50 people for positions at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Their combined annual salary reportedly added up to about $4 million.
Many had donated to Christie’s campaign, were previously employed by his administration or had ties to Christie appointees already working at the Port Authority, the story said.
Reporter Shawn Boburg, in his OPRA request filed Jan. 30, 2012, asked the governor’s office for documents received, sent or maintained since Jan. 1, 2010, with a recommendation or referral “of potential job applicants or candidates for any position” at the Port Authority. He asked for “any lists of referrals, memos, letters, e-mails” or other records; any documents identifying the person who requested the referral; and “any application, résumé, cover letter or other document related to the qualifications of the potential candidate or applicant.”
Amy Cattafi, the governor’s office’s supervisory custodian of records, denied the request in a Feb. 8, 2012, letter. She cited N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10, which says personnel records possessed by a public agency, with some exceptions, “shall not be considered a government record and shall not be made available for public access.”
The newspaper objected and asked Cattafi to instead compile an index of the documents sought so that an in camera judicial review could determine if they were correctly withheld. Cattafi denied that request as well.
That March, the newspaper sued Cattafi and the governor’s office, claiming the records were disclosable under OPRA and, alternatively, under a common-law right of access.
Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson granted a defense motion to dismiss on May 25, 2012, finding that the documents requested were personnel records and that as such the index was unnecessary.
Appellate Division Judges Joseph Yannotti and Margaret Hayden held that Jacobson correctly applied the OPRA exception.
The panel found a federal Freedom of Information Act case, Milner v. Department of the Navy, 131 S. Ct. 1259 (2011), inapposite because FOIA has a narrower exemption than OPRA.
The court also dispatched the newspaper’s argument that documentation that the applicants met minimum employment qualifications, at least, should have been provided. It is the Port Authority that makes a determination on the qualifications, the judges noted, adding that OPRA “does not require a government agency to conduct research, analyze or compile information for the requester.”
As for the index, Jacobson properly ruled it wasn’t necessary because any reviewing judge “could readily determine from the document request that the records sought are not subject to disclosure under OPRA,” the panel said. Jacobson also properly weighed each party’s competing interests in denying common-law right of access.
Assistant Attorney General Lewis Scheindlin argued for the defendants. Spokesman Lee Moore deferred comment to the governor’s office. Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak did not respond to a request for comment.
North Jersey Media Group’s counsel, Samuel Samaro of Pashman Stein in Hackensack, did not return a call.