Christie faces mounting lawsuits over public records

BY Associated Press  August 16, 2014 at 3:45 PM EST

NEWARK, N.J. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took into office promising “a new era of accountability and transparency.” Yet after he won a second term last year and as he explores a run for president, his administration stands accused of routinely stonewalling even the most basic requests for public records.

Attorneys involved in lawsuits filed in search of public records say they have seen a spike in the number of such cases in the past six months.

The lawyers, along with media organizations and watchdog groups, also say they have received more arbitrary justifications for the denial of requests made under New Jersey’s open records law, as well as an increased willingness by the state attorney general’s office to fight such requests in court.

“The quality of the denials are getting dumber,” said lawyer Walter Luers, who specializes in such cases. “They’re just kind of making reasons to not give us stuff.”

Christie on Friday insisted that his administration was as transparent as he said it would be. “You guys want everything. You’re not entitled to everything. So we give you what you’re entitled to under the law. And I think that’s fair.”

His spokesman, Kevin Roberts, previously had declined to answer questions about the administration’s approach to public records requests. He said he was “not going to comment on pending litigation as per our practice, or on idle speculation.”

The attorney general’s office did not respond to multiple requests for information about how many open records-related complaints their office is litigating now or how much those cases have cost the state.

Despite Christie’s inaugural address pledge of transparency, and his comments Friday, reporters and others have often faced frustrations when seeking records from his office.

Those asking for copies of Christie’s calendar – a record routinely disclosed by other governors – receive copies of his public event advisories instead of details about his travel and meetings.

Media outlets have sued over access to visitor logs at the governor’s mansion, out of state travel records and details about public contracts.

The administration saw a surge in records requests following revelations that top Christie aides and appointees apparently conspired to create traffic chaos on the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan last September. There are indications his administration has since become less willing to comply with such requests.

In the first six months of 2013, records show, the governor’s office received 98 open records requests. The number more than doubled to 231 during the same period in 2014.

As of July 24, there were at least 22 open records complaints pending before the Trenton judge who handles the cases, according to a list compiled by her chamber and first reported by the New Jersey Law Journal. She declined to discuss the cases through a clerk.

As part of a lawsuit by New York Public Radio over 11 denied or ignored records requests, attorney Bruce Rosen wrote in July that “in the first six months of 2014, the Governor’s Office and certain state executive agencies have drastically restricted access.”

Since then, Rosen said his clients have “repeatedly encountered undue delay, insufficient explanation and unwarranted excuses and denials in response to recent requests.”

In an interview, he added, “It seems that they’ve drawn a line in the sand,” calling the lawsuits “an incredible waste of resources and an incredible waste of money.”

Jennifer Borg, the general counsel of the North Jersey Media Group, which has eight lawsuits pending against the state, complained of more aggressive stonewalling in the past year to 16 months.

She said it had a “tremendous” impact on newsgathering operations at its newspapers, including The Record of Bergen County.

“They’re putting up any roadblock they can,” she said, describing “a pattern and practice of thwarting” access that prevented reporters from obtaining even basic documents, such as payroll records.

Last month, state Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson forced the Christie administration to turn over a list of public records requests filed with the governor’s office and other state agencies by Harry Scheeler Jr., a 36-year-old activist who has been filing open records requests since he was a teenager.

The same kinds of requests have been fulfilled routinely over the years. But this time, the state had denied them – at one point citing concerns about compromising media outlets’ scoops.

The Associated Press made a similar request in December 2013, and the governor’s office fulfilled it on Feb. 6, four days before Scheeler’s request was denied.

“They don’t want the public to know how horrible they comply with (the law),” Scheeler said. “It’s pretty bad.”

The increase in suits has a potential real dollar cost to the state.

If it loses a case, the state is on the hook for plaintiff legal fees that can range into the thousands. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey says it has recovered more than $45,000 in attorney’s fees in over six cases it had litigated against the administration, including one settlement for more than $18,000.

“Their default position appears to be to withhold records from the public even though the law requires the exact opposite,” said the group’s executive director, Udi Ofer. “It shouldn’t take a lawsuit for the public to access what are undeniably public records.”

Jill Colvin wrote this report for the Associated Press. Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvhill in Trenton contributed to this report