By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog
Based on secret evidence, a New Jersey court is allowing Gov. Chris Christie to hide American Express bills that show how his state police security team charged more than $1 million to pay for out-of-state travel.
Judge Mary C. Jacobson dismissed a public records suit by New Jersey Watchdog on Friday, ruling that details of past expenses for food, lodging and transportation could create a potential security risk for the governor in the future.
“The court finds the general interest of the public to have a breakdown pales in comparison,” said Jacobson during a hearing in Mercer County Superior Court. As a result, state taxpayers may never learn how the money was spent.
The Executive Protection Unit travel expenses increased with the frequency of Christie’s out-of-state trips to pursue his political ambitions, including his run for the White House. Last year, costs totaled $494,420 as the governor traveled outside New Jersey for more than 100 days. That sum is 22 times more than the $21,704 spent in 2009, former Gov. Jon Corzine’s last year in office.
Jacobson based her decision on a confidential sworn statement provided by Capt. Kevin Cowan, head of the EPU. “He unequivocally swears in that certification that release of the information would increase the risk of harm to the governor,” said the judge.
New Jersey Watchdog’s lawyer was not allowed to view or question that evidence, which makes any appeal difficult.
Christie almost blew his own defense by his comments to a Cub Scout at an April town hall meeting in Hasbrouck Heights.
“How many bodyguards do you have?” 7-year-old Charles Tartaglia asked Christie in a video posted on YouTube by the governor’s office.
“I count about six,” responded the governor, scanning a crowded VFW hall. “I’m not telling you which ones they are, but a subtle hint would be — the guys with the wires in their ears.”
Christie told the audience that 30 state police troopers are assigned to EPU. He said he is routinely accompanied by three officers. The around-the-clock protection also includes troopers stationed at his home.
But in court filings, his office had claimed that same information must be kept secret to avoid endangering the governor.
“I had a lot of concerns that the position raised by the state was really undercut by the governor’s own comments,” said Jacobson. Yet she gave the state another chance to win the case by allowing Cowan to submit a certification under court seal.
Cowan asserted that even if Christie disclosed details about his level of security in New Jersey, the protection he receives when traveling outside the state is “different,” according to Jacobson. The Amex charges were “almost entirely” for out-of-state trips, so the judge concluded releasing credit card statements could reveal new secrets.
“He explained in detail how they are fundamentally different – and that is something that is confidential,” said Jacobson.
The decision rescues the governor from danger that EPU expense details could be revealed in the midst of his political campaign for the Republican nomination.
Christie has a reputation as a big spender when someone else picks up the tab. He was embarrassed by a New Jersey Watchdog report documenting he spent $82,000 from a state expense account on food and alcohol concessions at MetLife Stadium during the 2010 and 2011 NFL seasons.
The EPU has racked up $1.3 million in expenses – not including the troopers’ salary and overtime – since Christie took office in 2010. Of that total, more than $1.1 million was spent on Amex charges for the governor’s out-of-state travel.
The rate of EPU expenses skyrocketed by 66 percent – up to $184,659 during the first three months of this year, according to the most recent totals released by the governor’s office.
Those costs will continue to rise as Christie spends less time in Trenton and more time traveling the nation in search of votes and political contributions. He has journeyed outside New Jersey during 29 of the first 40 days since he officially declared his candidacy.
While Christie’s campaign may pay for his travel expenses, state taxpayers are stuck with the costs of the state police officers assigned to follow him wherever he goes.
Christie said he won’t ask America Leads, his super PAC that has raised $11 million, to pay for extra public expenses created by his political ventures. He refused to follow the lead of Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, a fellow governor and rival GOP candidate.
“We’re going to continue to conduct this in the same way I’ve always conducted it,” Christie told reporters in New Hampshire last month.
New Jersey voters overwhelmingly oppose Christie’s practice of saddling taxpayers with the travel bills of the state police escorts who follow him on the political trail, according to a recent Monmouth University poll.
Only one percent of the voters polled thought the state should pay, while 82 percent said Christie’s campaign should take responsibility for the out-of-state security costs. The same poll found 58 percent of New Jerseyans judged their governor as not honest or trustworthy.
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DISCLOSURE: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff in Lagerkvist v. Office of the Governor, Mercer County Superior Court, MER-L-463-15.