A former high-level Hunterdon County prosecutor who claims he was forced out after N.J. Gov. Chris Christie’s administration intervened in a criminal case against the county sheriff has asked the Bridgegate investigative committee to look into the incident.
Charles Ouslander said in a Feb. 11 letter that he had received unconfirmed information that the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigations “will at some point hold hearings on the unprecedented dismissal of the 43-count indictment secured by my office at the time and then abruptly dismissed by the Attorney General and her staff.”
He informed cochairs Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, and Senator Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, that he would “fully cooperate with any investigation into the matter.”
Ouslander, a one-time first assistant Hunterdon County prosecutor, said in an interview on Tuesday that he believed the committee was already interested in the case against former Hunterdon Sheriff Deborah Trout and two deputies based on what a former colleague, Bennett Barlyn, had told him.
Barlyn, the plaintiff in a whistleblower case against the state and the Attorney General’s office, says that Weinberg’s chief of staff, Debra Francica, called him on Jan. 31 and left a message advising that the office wanted to arrange a meeting to discuss the Trout case.
Barlyn claims that he was fired from his job as an assistant Hunterdon County prosecutor for complaining that the Trout case was improperly dismissed for political purposes. Some of the charges that were tossed out concerned providing law enforcement ID cards to people who had no tight to carry them. Receipients allegedly included Robert Hariri, chief executive officer of Celgene Cellular Therapeutics, a division of Celgene Corp. in Summit, who, with his wife, gave more than $10,000 to the 2009 campaign. Christie named Hariri to his transition team and to the state’s Commission on Cancer Research.
In January 2012, Richard Bagger, who was Christie’s chief of staff for the first half of his first term, went to work for Celgene in a newly created post of senior vice president/corporate affairs and strategic market access.
Trout had publicly backed Christie and running mate Kim Guadagno, a former Monmouth County sheriff.
Further, the Hunterdon County Democrat reported that on May 7, 2010, the date the indictments were announced, undersheriff Michael Russo, who was charged along with Trout, remarked that Christie would “have this whole thing thrown out.’
That same day, Attorney General Paula Dow, a Christie appointee who had previously worked for him when he was U.S. attorney for New Jersey, took over the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office and the case against Trout, Russo and another deputy sheriff.
Dow had Hunterdon County Prosecutor J. Patrick Barnes, a holdover, resign and sent in Deputy Attorney General Dermot O’Grady to run the office. O’Grady ordered the Trout file moved to Trenton.
The case was dismissed on Aug. 23, 2010, at the request of Deputy Attorney General Christine Hoffman, who told the court it had “legal and factual deficiencies.”
Barlyn says he told O’Grady that the dismissals were improper, unlawful and done for a corrupt political purpose when he encountered him in a hallway that day. One day later, Barlyn was suspended without explanation and escorted from the premises and three weeks after that terminated, again without a reason being given, he claims.
Ouslander, then in his late 40s, took early retirement shortly after.
He said Tuesday that as first assistant, he might have had to leave anyway when a new prosecutor was named and— given what had happened with the Trout case, Barlyn and William McGovern, the lead Trout prosecutor also forced into early retirement—”I didn’t harbor any illusions.”
Ouslander is now municipal judge for Hopewell Township and part of the pool of counsel that the Office of the Public Defender taps to serve as appellate law guardians.
He says he sees what was done in Hunterdon as “germane’ to the Bridgegate committee’s efforts.
Barlyn agrees, saying it fits the pattern of Bridgegate and other recently revealed actions by the Christie administration. He says there is a public interest that transcends his personal lawsuit.
In his view, the case comes “gift wrapped” because the committee would have the benefit of the information already uncovered in his lawsuit and the “cooperation of seasoned law enforcement officers eager to explain what happened.”
For example, he supplied an email message from McGovern to Barnes, Ouslander and others that discusses a Jan. 26, 2010, meeting in Trenton at which McGovern and Barnes met with Dow and the First Assistant Attorney General Phillip Kwon about the Trout case.
The email says that Kwon thought the case merited the attention of a federal prosecutor and that McGovern had spoken with Assistant U.S. Attorney James Nobile who was going to have an FBI agent get in touch.
U.S. Attorney’s office spokesman Matthew Reilly declines comment.
Christie, whose subsequent nomination of Kwon to the Supreme Court was voted down, appointed him as Deputy General Counsel for the Port Authority, the agency whose closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge is at the center of the Bridgegate scandal. Kwon was subpoenaed by the committee earlier this month. A call to the Port Authority requesting comment from Kwon was not returned.
McGovern declines comment but his attorney, Thaddeus Mikulski, a Hamilton solo, says, “If subpoenaed to testify, Mr. McGovern will answer all questions asked of him.”
Mikulski added that although McGovern “did not pursue a lawsuit, his tort claim notice speaks for itself.’
The notice, filed in November 2010, accuses the Attorney General’s Office of formulating a plan to throw out the indictments and get rid of individuals involved with the case.
It says that O’Grady conditioned McGovern’s continued employment on “remaining silent about the State’s handling of the Sheriff’s case and on [his] distancing himself from certain individuals associated with the Sheriff’s case.”
Dylan Hawkins of Weinberg’s office confirms that she received Ouslander’s letter. He says the senator has not yet responded but he notes that the committee has taken the approach of going where the evidence leads.
The Attorney General’s Office declines comment through spokesman Lee Moore, as does Dow, now a Superior Court judge, through spokeswoman Donna Mazzanti.
Wisniewski’s office did not return a call.
The committee’s counsel, Reid Schar of Jenner & Block in Chicago, did not respond to an email, nor did Christie spokesmen Colin Reed and Kevin Roberts.
The select committee, formed by SCR-49, a resolution passed unanimously by the Senate and Assembly on Jan. 27, has a broad mandate.
It is authorized to investigate “all aspects of the finances, operations, and management of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and any other matter raising concerns about abuse of government power or an attempt to conceal an abuse of government power including, but not limited to, the reassignment of access lanes in Fort Lee, New Jersey to the George Washington Bridge.”
The extensive tools at its disposal include the power to subpoena testimony and records, to conduct hearings, take testimony under oath, receive documentary or physical evidence, hold in contempt and “use any and all reasonable means of interviewing or fact gathering.”