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NJ Watchdog sues Christie to disclose $800,000 in credit card records

By   /   March 2, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo by Tim Larsen | Governor's Office

SKY HIGH: New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie seeks a big travel upgrade.

 

By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog

A New Jersey Watchdog reporter is suing Gov. Chris Christie for records of nearly $800,000 in expenses charged to American Express credit cards for the travel costs of the governor’s state police security detail.

The public records lawsuit was filed Friday in Mercer County Superior Court.

Christie’s staff denied the reporter’s requests for the monthly statements and related documents, arguing that release of details on past charges would jeopardize the governor’s safety in the future.

A New Jersey Watchdog investigation found the travel expenses of the Executive Protection Unit are 18 times higher than when Christie took office. Much of the increase is attributed to Christie’s frequent out-of-state trips as he pursues his political ambitions and a likely run for the White House.

The bills totaled almost $1 million during Christie’s first four years and nine months as governor. More than 80 percent were charged to Amex cards used by the governor’s office, which later sought reimbursement from the state police.

Last year, Christie traveled outside New Jersey on more than 100 days while visiting 36 states, Mexico and Canada. Wherever the governor travels for whatever reason — whether funded by political groups, supporters or others — he is accompanied by an EPU security detail at state expense.

State records previously obtained by New Jersey Watchdog show:

  • EPU travel costs jumped by 300 percent to $64,975 during 2010, Christie’s first year as governor. The following year, it doubled to $129,842.
  • The bill shot up to $248,277 in 2012 as Christie crisscrossed the country to campaign for Mitt Romney and others, highlighted by his nationally televised keynote speech at the GOP National Convention in Tampa, Florida. In 2013, the figure dipped to $220,355.
  • EPU travel charges accelerated to $296,404 for the first nine months of 2014 while Christie traveled extensively as chairman of the Republican Governors Association to raise $106 million in political contributions.
  • In contrast, EPU expenses during 2009, former Gov. Jon Corzine’s final year in office, were only $21,704.
  • Overall, EPU travel costs have totaled $959,856 under Christie, not including unreleased expense information for the fourth quarter of last year.

The documents show Christie’s office billed the New Jersey State Police for “travel expenses” that included $129,272 for Blackberry smartphone service; $8,586 for rental of a copier; $1,505 for drinking water; $3,552 to repair a security camera at the gubernatorial mansion in Princeton; $9,335 for costs related to Christie’s trip to Israel in March 2012; and $13,650 for the governor’s trip to Mexico in September 2014.

(Click here for New Jersey Watchdog’s line-by-line analysis.)

What’s missing are Amex records of how the remaining $793,007 was spent. Those charges presumably include hotels, transportation, meals and other expenses.

The governor’s office contends release of the statements would identify troopers who have been issued the charge cards.  In response, the reporter agreed to allow the state to black out their names and replace them with initials or a numeric code.  But Christie’s staff rejected that offer, claiming the reporter might be able to use the records to guess how many troopers are assigned to EPU.

If that information is a state secret, it is one that’s poorly kept.

State Police Supt. Rick Fuentes revealed those numbers in 2007 during testimony at a public hearing.  According to Fuentes, there were 29 troopers assigned to EPU, with 19 of those officers assigned to the governor’s personal-security detail.  The superintendent said an additional five troopers were being added and assigned to the governor.

EPU travel expenses do not include the troopers’ overtime pay, data kept secret under a rule adopted by the Christie administration. Nor does it count the cost of state police vehicles and helicopters used to transport the governor and his entourage.

Records of the amount of overtime paid became state secrets through a 2011 regulation adopted by Paula T. Dow, Christie’s first attorney general. The rule assumes release of the information could jeopardize the safety of the governor and his protectors if revealed.

The reporter’s lawsuit also is seeking a copy of an extensive email list assembled by the governor’s staff.

Christie’s high-tech list of 2,500 reporters and television producers is an integral part of a publicity machine created at taxpayers’ expense.

The governor’s media team has expanded to include 16 full-time staffers and a payroll of $1.36 million last year, a 50 percent increase in five years.

In a January news release recounting his accomplishments as governor, Christie boasted that he had generated 8,761,511 views on YouTube, 176,955 likes on Facebook and 6,810 tweets to 489,000 followers on Twitter.

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DISCLOSURE:  Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff in Lagerkvist v. Office of Governor, filed Friday in Mercer County Superior Court.

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Mark formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.