The chairman of the New Jersey Assembly Judiciary Committee has filed an open records lawsuit against the state Attorney General’s Office, demanding access to documents relating to the firing of a former assistant Hunterdon County prosecutor who alleged he lost his job after claiming that Gov. Chris Christie intervened to have an indictment against a supporter dismissed.
The fired prosecutor, Bennett Barlyn, eventually accepted a $1.5 million payout to settle his wrongful termination claims.
Assemblyman John McKeon filed the lawsuit in Mercer County Superior Court on Thursday, against Attorney General Christopher Porrino and his records custodian.
McKeon is represented by Leon Sokol, of Hackensack’s Cullen & Dykman.
McKeon, a Democrat from Essex County, alleges that Porrino, an appointee of Republican Christie, and his staff have repeatedly ignored requests from the Judiciary Committee to release documents relating to Barlyn’s wrongful termination case and his underlying complaints regarding the Hunterdon County Sheriff’s Office, despite the office making the documents available to Barlyn during discovery.
“The Attorney General’s Office has continued to withhold production of any and all documents that are in any way responsive to my request,” McKeon said in a statement. “This lawsuit is an unfortunate but necessary step. New Jersey cannot have an Attorney General’s Office that is unresponsive to the public. The public interest in obtaining the requested documents substantially outweighs any interest in continued secrecy.”
The dispute arises from McKeon’s request for documents pertaining to the Attorney General’s Office’s involvement in 2010 of the dismissal of indictments brought against Sheriff Deborah Trout and two sheriff’s department employees, Michael Russo and John Falat. The indictments were withdrawn by then-Attorney General Paula Dow, and Barlyn was fired.
Barlyn later brought a whistleblower lawsuit in which he alleged that he was fired because of statements he made at the time regarding the role of political supporters of Christie in Dow’s decision to withdraw the indictments.
Dow is now the Equity Part presiding judge in Burlington County.
McKeon has been asking for the records since August, to no effect, he claims. The settlement with Barlyn had been the subject of a confidentiality order, but became public after media reports.
Barlyn agreed to the committee’s request to release the related documents, but McKeon’s lawsuit says the state has been unresponsive. McKeon’s lawsuit alleges violations of the state’s Open Public Records Act and the common-law right of access.
“The state should not be heard to complain that those OPRA requests are burdensome or that the state’s efforts to retrieve the responsive documents would entail a substantial amount of staff resources or analysis,” the lawsuit says.
Leland Moore, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
McKeon, a partner at Springfield’s Hardin Kundla McKeon & Poletto, was not immediately available for further comment.
The Assembly has passed a bill, A-4243, sponsored by McKeon, that would bar public agencies from including confidentiality agreements when settling cases out of court with whistleblowers.
The Assembly passed the bill in a 73-0 vote in March. It is pending before the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee, but has not received a hearing.
The state’s settlement with Barlyn put an end to his 2012 suit claiming the indictments of Trout and her two aides were abandoned by the Attorney General’s Office to protect Christie. Trout had been charged with hiring deputies without conducting proper background checks, and making employees sign loyalty oaths. Russo and Falat were indicted on charges of making fake law enforcement badges, including one they gave to Christie donor Robert Hariri, CEO at Summit-based drug company Celgene.
Hariri and his wife gave more than $10,000 to Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign and served on his transition team, media reports said. In addition, Trout and Russo were political supporters of Christie, and the day the indictments were announced, May 7, 2010, Russo said Christie would “have this whole thing thrown out,” Barlyn alleged in court documents.
Soon after the indictments were unsealed, Attorney General Dow took control of the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office and assumed authority for the Trout case, appointing Deputy Attorney General Dermot O’Grady as acting prosecutor.
On Aug. 23, 2010, Dow’s office dropped the indictments against Trout, Russo and Falat. That same day, Barlyn claimed he met O’Grady in a hallway and told him the dismissals were improper, unlawful and politically motivated, according to the suit. Barlyn claimed he was suspended the next day and terminated by letter three weeks later, without explanation.
McKeon earlier this year had been prominently mentioned as a possible challenger to Republican U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen in 2018. McKeon announced in August that he would not run for the office.