Gov. Chris Christie ()
Lawyers representing government watchdogs and media outlets are claiming that the administration of Gov. Chris Christie has adopted a stance in which requests for information made under the state’s Open Public Records Act are being routinely denied out of hand, leading to an increasing number of court fights.
In interviews and court papers, lawyers said the position now taken by the administration and some state agencies is to deny any OPRA request, often with little or no explanation.
Those OPRA requests have ranged from asking the Division of Fish and Wildlife what happened to a deer that was taken from someone’s backyard to demanding text messages and emails from the governor’s office relating to last fall’s lane closures to the George Washington Bridge.
As of this week, there are at least 22 OPRA complaints against the administration pending before Mercer County Assignment Judge Mary Jacobson. It is unclear how many other OPRA cases may be pending across the state. But because the Attorney General’s office, which represents the state in OPRA cases, is based in Trenton, N.J., most OPRA cases are handled in Mercer County.
“They’re being very aggressive in defending these cases,” said Bruce Rosen, a litigator who presently is representing New York Public Radio as local counsel in a case pending before Jacobson.
Rosen recently won a ruling on behalf of another OPRA client, good-government watchdog Harry Scheeler of Woodbine, N.J.
On July 21, Jacobson ruled in favor of Scheeler, who had filed OPRA requests with seven state agencies asking for copies of OPRA requests filed by other people or organizations.
West Berlin, N.J.-based solo Donald Doherty, who is representing another good-government watchdog, Mark Lagerkvist of Red Bank, N.J., in two cases, agreed with Rosen.
“The routine response is to deny any request for information. They will only answer a request if it doesn’t hurt them,” he said.
Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie, issued a brief statement in response to the lawyers’ claims.
“I’m not going to comment on that sort of baseless and idle speculation—and I’m surprised it could form any sort of basis for a story,” Roberts said.
A spokesman for the Attorney General’s office, which is required to defend the state in OPRA suits, declined to comment.
Jennifer Borg, the vice president and general counsel for the North Jersey Media Group, which publishes The Record newspaper, said she “can only guess” as to why the Christie administration seems to be slamming the door on nearly every OPRA request.
“It boggles my mind how the executive branch of the government can engage in such conduct,” said Borg, who currently has five pending OPRA lawsuits.
It has gotten to the point, she said, that in some matters the administration will not even identify the custodian of records who is denying a particular request.
The administration has “established a pattern and/or practice of OPRA violations, which hinders, delays and obstructs access to public records,” Borg said in a brief in one case in which the newspaper is seeking documents and correspondence regarding the Sept. 9-13 George Washington Bridge lane closures.
Those lane closures are currently being investigated by the U.S. Attorney’s office and by a joint committee of the state legislature. It is believed that the closures were ordered to retaliate against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., Mark Sokolich, who declined to join with other Democrats in endorsing Christie for reelection.
Lawyers involved in the OPRA cases said the typical administration responses are that the requests are “‘overbroad,’” are exempt because of security issues or rules that exempt the governor’s office from disclosure, or that the requestors are demanding information rather than documents.
Plaintiffs recently have had mixed success in their court battles over requests for documents from the administration.
In Scheeler’s case, Jacobson rejected the state’s arguments that such requests could lead to improper data mining, and said there was no expectation of privacy when filing an OPRA request.
But the administration scored a victory Tuesday when Jacobson ruled that the governor’s office was not required to comply with Lagerkvist’s demand for documents relating to Christie’s frequent out-of-state travels.
Lagerkvist wants to know the identities of any third parties who may be picking up the tab for Christie’s expenses for at least 41 trips.
Christie’s out-of-state travels have increased since he became chairman of the Republican Governors Association and since he began exploring whether he wants to seek the party’s nomination for president in 2016.
Lagerkvist had asked for “all available documents” relating to the identities of the third parties, according to court papers. His OPRA request was rejected as being “unclear,” and a subsequent, more detailed request was not answered.
Jacobson ruled that Lagerkvist’s request was “overbroad,” as it would require the administration to, in effect, do Lagerkvist’s research for him.
The onus is on the requestor, Jacobson said, to formulate a detailed request that requires little more than ministerial action to fulfill.
“OPRA works well when the requestor knows what he or she wants,” Jacobson said.
Doherty and Lagerkvist said afterward they did not know whether they would appeal or whether Lagerkvist would file separate OPRA requests for each of the 41 trips.
Rosen, of McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli in Florham Park, N.J., is handling a lawsuit on behalf of New York Public Radio that concerns 11 separate OPRA requests made by two of its reporters.
Those OPRA requests include documents relating to travel vouchers for Christie’s staff, lists of towns and mayors Christie considers important to his policy and political goals, the governor’s meeting schedules, documents relating to contracts for Hurricane Sandy cleanup and who has visited Drumthwacket, the governor’s official residence.
In a brief dated July 1, Rosen noted that when Christie first took office in January 2009 he promised a government of accountability and transparency.
“However, in the first six months of 2014, the governor’s office and certain state executive agencies have drastically restricted access,” he said, adding that “resistance increased significantly after the commencement of public investigations relating to the Bridgegate scandal.”
Clinton, N.J., solo Walter Luers is representing a third watchdog, John Paff, in a lawsuit demanding travel, lodging and other information relating to a trip Christie took in April 2013 to Southern Methodist University in Dallas to attend the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
Luers said Paff wants to know whether public funds were used to pay for the trip. The request was denied for privacy and security reasons, he said.
“They’re just getting secretive,” Luers said of the administration in an interview. “Maybe they’re just trying to dissuade people from asking for information.”
There has long been an interest in Christie’s travel arrangements. In 2010, the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Justice criticized Christie’s spending on hotel bills while he was U.S. attorney.
Borg said in an interview that she does not know why the administration has begun fighting so many OPRA requests, but added that she started to see a rise in OPRA-related lawsuits last year.
“There are quick denial letters that say the requests are ‘overbroad,’” she said. “But they know exactly what we’re looking for.”
Rosen, in an interview, said he expects the number of OPRA-related lawsuits to increase.
“There’s a lot of interest in Christie because he’s running for president,” Rosen said. “That’s why it’s big. The wagons are circling.”
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