NJ Gov. Christie sheds his ‘open and honest’ reformer disguise

By Mark Lagerkvist on watchdog.org  -  April 24, 2014

Christie-reform-duhGov. Chris Christie’s office sends New Jersey Watchdog a message every other Tuesday — a reminder of how the governor and his staff flout the law and fight transparency in state government.

“This email serves to hereby request a two-week extension regarding your OPRA request nos. W82964 and W82965,” it states.

Since January, the governor has so far taken seven two-week extensions.

Under OPRA, the state Open Public Records Act, a governmental agency must grant or deny access to records “as soon as possible but not later than seven business days after receiving the request.” An agency is only allowed extra time if it needs to retrieve records from storage or archives.

In contrast, Christie and company already have had 15 weeks to decide whether to provide records of the state-paid travel expenses of the governor and his senior staff. Requests for explanation of the delays have gone unanswered.

By stringing out the process indefinitely — a devious tactic that clearly circumvents the letter and spirit of OPRA — Christie’s crew technically avoids making a decision that can be appealed in court. Meanwhile, the public’s right-to-know languishes in limbo.

The great irony is that Christie promoted himself as a champion of reform throughout his first term in office.

“These measures are about good, open and honest government, where the playing field is level for everyone and the rules are unambiguous,” said Christie in 2010 while campaigning for reforms.

While Christie has advanced transparency in some areas, such as the YourMoney.NJ.gov website, he has repeatedly sought to avoid release of information that could be used to hold the governor’s office accountable.

A tale of two OPRA requests

The latest battle with all the governor’s men began with OPRA requests submitted to Christie’s office on Jan. 15. Each request focused on records of different aspects of the travel expenses of the governor and his senior staff.

W82960 seeks specific records of travel paid for by third-parties on behalf of Christie and his senior staff.  After three two-week extensions, the governor’s office denied the request as being “unclear.”  Javier Diaz, a legal specialist to the governor, did not respond to questions on what was unclear about OPRA request.

In response, a New Jersey Watchdog reporter is suing the governor’s office for the records in Mercer County Superior Court. A hearing before Judge Mary C. Jacobson is scheduled for June 23.

“There is the public interest in assessing just who is paying for our government officials to visit with them,” argued attorney Donald M. Doherty Jr., in a brief filed last week. “If a person is judged by the company he keeps, politicians are similarly judged by who they travel to see.”

W82965 seeks specific records of travel by Christie and his senior staff paid by the state taxpayers. Regulations require the documents to be created and kept on file by the governor’s office.

So far, the only communication from the governor’s office has been to keep pushing back the deadline without making a decision.

“W82965 is a clear and specific request for public records,” the reporter wrote in a March 12 email to the records custodian. “If, for some reason, you believe it to be unclear, as your office has contended with W82960, please state exactly why you believe that is the case.”

The governor’s office has not replied. Nor has it acknowledged New Jersey Watchdog’s offer to drop W82964 because it was a duplicate request caused by a snafu in the state’s web site.

Christie, meanwhile, postures as a proponent of “good, open and honest government.” Yet the extension notices that delay access to public records continue to arrive every other Tuesday.

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DISCLOSURE: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff in Lagerkvist v. Office of Governor, Mercer County Superior Court, MER-L-821-14