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NJ Watchdog pursuit of public records strikes blow for transparency

By   /   August 13, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

IN THE DARK: Gov. Chris Christie battles to keep public records secret

 

The news media are buzzing about New Jersey Watchdog’s court battles with Chris Christie over public records.

In state court last week, the non-profit news site prevailed over the New Jersey governor’s office in a contest over his “ace-in-the-hole” – a directory of press contacts Christie wants to protect for his own political use.

RELATED: Court orders Christie to release his ‘valuable’ media list

New Jersey Watchdog convinced the judge to compel Christie to release his so-called media list, a ‘key cog in his taxpayer-funded publicity machine – a multi-tiered, high-tech list of 2,500 media contacts,’ as the investigative journalism site described it,” stated the editorial board of the Star-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper, on Wednesday.

The editorial continued:

“Judge (Mary C.) Jacobson agreed it is subject to public disclosure because it was compiled by the 16 employees on the governor’s communications staff as they were earning their combined $1.4 million state salaries. That means, for better or worse, the list belongs to all of us.

“And though the governor has argued that this should remain confidential, he has probably already shared that media list with a few special friends – such as his political action committee, or party affiliates – which means our tax dollars are being used in ways most of us never imagined,” said the Newark-based daily.

“What would we learn from such a list? It’s hard to say, but we know how it is used, because the stalwart work of these dedicated public servants is well documented: They tape and edit and score the Governor’s appearances, and then email the prefabbed product to those 2,500 folks – journalists, bloggers, social media drivers, and TV producers that were chosen mostly for their Pavlovian impulse to drool over his Made-for-YouTube glibness and authenticity.”

While New Jersey Watchdog scored a victory in that dispute – which Christie may appeal – the governor gets to conceal details of how his state police security team racked up $1.1 million in American Express bills for travel costs.

RELATED: Court allows Christie to hide $1 million in Amex charges

“Christie will still be able to stick New Jersey taxpayers with millions in travel costs and keep all the details a secret, thanks to a Superior Court ruling,” opined an editorial Tuesday by Gannett Newspapers.

“That’s the upshot of Judge Mary Jacobson’s decision allowing the state to continue to hide the costs of Christie’s security detail during his out-of-state campaign travels. That money comes straight out of the public’s pocket and does nothing more than serve the governor’s own personal interests…”

The Gannett editorial explained:

“This represents a legal victory for Christie, but not an ethical one. We concede that some information might not be appropriate for public consumption — exact numbers of troopers on the road and detailed itineraries, for example. The issue here, however, isn’t just the money spent, but the money wasted. Is the security detail scoring five-star rooms and fine dining? Are they piling up the room-service costs and pay-per-view movie charges? Is the governor making no effort to control costs on the public’s credit card? That much at least we do deserve to know, and such information poses no meaningful security risk…

“Christie is notorious for living high on the hog in public office, going back to his days as U.S. Attorney. He memorably explained that he likes to squeeze all the juice out of the orange, which means grabbing all the perks he can, from so-called friends and others courting his favor — or whose favor he seeks — and paying little heed to what it all costs the public. He brags about shutting down traffic and inconveniencing thousands so he can breeze through tunnels to Manhattan on his way to a game. He abuses the trappings of power and we have to pay the bill, without even knowing for what we are paying.

“So congratulations, governor, you won. And ordinary citizens are the losers once more — par for the course under the Christie administration,” the Gannett column concluded.

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Mark formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.