By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog
As Gov. Chris Christie aims for a landslide win in the November election – with an eye towards the White House in 2016 – there’s a criminal investigation the New Jersey governor wants to keep from public view.
His running mate, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, is a central figure in a hush-hush pension fraud probe that began more than two years ago. Now the Christie administration is arguing in court that the outcome, findings and all other records of the investigation should remain state secrets.
In a quest for those records, a New Jersey Watchdog reporter is suing the state Division of Criminal Justice. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 3 in Mercer County Superior Court.
DCJ began its investigation in May 2011 at the behest of a pension board, according to a sworn statement by a state official. Christie, Guadagno and DCJ officials have declined comment. In court papers, the state refuses to acknowledge whether the case is open or closed.
The inquiry followed an investigative report by New Jersey Watchdog detailing how false statements by Guadagno enabled one of her top aides to improperly collect and keep $245,000 from the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System.
As Monmouth County sheriff in 2008, Guadagno hired Michael W. Donovan Jr. as “chief of law enforcement division” at a $87,500 annual salary. She announced the appointment in a memo to her staff. The sheriff’s official website identified Donovan as “sheriff’s officer chief,” supervising 115 subordinate officers and 30 civilian employees.
Donovan faced a legal problem. He already was collecting an $85,000 a year state pension as a retired investigator for the county prosecutor. While double-dipping is often legal in New Jersey, this case was different.
Since the position of sheriff’s officer chief is covered by the pension system, Donovan should have been required to stop receiving pension benefits, re-enroll in the retirement plan and resume contributions to the pension fund.
Instead, Guadagno falsified Donovan’s job title in several documents so her aide could get two checks, not just one, totaling $172,500 a year.
In county payroll records, the oath of office and a news release, Donovan was listed as the sheriff’s “chief warrant officer” – a similar sounding, but low-ranking position that’s not in the pension system. A chief warrant officer is responsible for serving warrants and other legal documents.
However, on Guadagno’s organizational chart, Donovan was listed as chief of law enforcement. The position of chief warrant officer was not on the chart.
While sheriff’s chief, Donovan pocketed $227,000 in checks from PFRS. Since he did not re-enroll in the pension plan, he avoided another $18,000 in contributions.
If the state decides Donovan violated pension law, he could be forced to repay $245,000.
The stakes also are high for Guadagno, who would become governor if a re-elected Christie leaves office mid-term to pursue the presidency in 2016.
Under state statute, “Any person who shall knowingly make any false statement or shall falsify or permit to be falsified any record or records of this retirement system…shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”
For his role, Christie risks political consequences and questions about his judgment in handling the Guadagno-Donovan controversy.
Rather than appoint an independent prosecutor or special investigator, Christie allowed DCJ to run the case.
It is an obvious conflict-of-interest. Guadagno is a former DCJ deputy director and now Christie’s second-in-command. She sits in the governor’s cabinet alongside the state attorney general, who is in charge of DCJ.
Amid conflicts and controversy, Christie announced early this year that Guadagno would remain his running mate. He has never publicly commented on the pension probe that implicates the lieutenant governor.
The reporter sued DCJ in Superior Court after the agency denied an Open Public Records Act request. The lawsuit also seeks investigative records on sheriff’s officers John Dough of Essex County and Harold Gibson of Union County.
In the opposition brief, the attorney general argues the documents should be withheld to “protect those alleged to have committed corruption-related offenses from being pre-judged merely because allegations have been made against them,” among other reasons.
The attorney general is going to an extreme to keep all information about the investigation under wraps.
Faced with a court order, the state produced a “Vaughn index” – a list of 771 pages of documents related to the probe. The two-fold purpose of the index is to help both the judge and plaintiff analyze the government’s reasons for asserting confidentiality without viewing the actual records.
The attorney general has asked the court to seal the index and bar the plaintiff from seeing it – a measure without precedent in New Jersey. Judge Mary C. Jacobson has yet to rule on the state’s motion.
Meanwhile, a lengthy battle over similar records is being waged by the same reporter in another forum. That conflict centers on records of the state Treasury’s review of the Guadagno-Donovan matter – a precursor to the DCJ investigation.
When Treasury denied that OPRA request in March 2011, the reporter appealed to the Government Records Council. GRC is a panel comprised of gubernatorial appointees and Christie cabinet officials.
Administrative Law Judge Linda M. Kassekert has ordered Treasury officials to turn over 26 documents for in-camera inspection. After review, the judge will determine which records, if any, the state should release.
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DISCLOSURE: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff in the aforementioned cases against DCJ (Mercer Co. Superior Court, MER-L-464-13) and Treasury (OAL GRC 6985-13 & GRC 2011-110).