HEY, BIG SPENDER – Gov. Chris Christie’s office is hiding state credit card bills for his travel
By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog
What happens when Gov. Chris Christie’s staff is caught lying to a New Jersey court about the existence of public records?
That legal bombshell may explode in Mercer County Superior Court this week in the governor’s battle with a New Jersey Watchdog reporter over travel expense accounts.
Documents surfaced that directly contradict the claims of Christie’s lawyers that the governor and his staff do not use state credit cards for travel and don’t have any records.
“The governor’s office does not use Travel Cards and thus does not have Travel Card statements,” stated Christie associate counsel Javier Diaz in a certification filed with the court. Similar to an affidavit, a certification carries penalties for willful false statements.
Yet an American Express card issued to the state is how the governor’s office paid for $8,146 worth of airfare for Christie’s entourage in January 2013 to the Super Bowl in New Orleans. The four passengers were Christie, his wife Mary Pat, chief of staff Kevin O’Dowd and planning director Daniel Robles.
The statements for the corporate AMEX card, received from another source, were addressed to the “NJ Governor’s Office” at the Statehouse in care of Robles. The card was used again to charge $1,687 of additional expenses in February 2013.
“The state should not be playing semantics with whatever it calls the small piece of plastic that is whipped out to pay for the governor’s $8,000 worth of first-class airfare, among other things,” argued the reporter’s attorney, Donald M. Doherty Jr., in a brief to Judge Mary C. Jacobson.
Other hidden records from the Super Bowl trip include a $7,583 invoice for three hotel rooms in the names of Christie, O’Dowd and Robles. Christie’s room and hotel expenses alone cost taxpayers $3,371. The name of the hotel and itemized bills were redacted from the documents.
In response to the discovery, Doherty asked the court to compel the state to identify and produce all missing records of the governor’s travel expenses.
State regulations require New Jersey officials to use authorized credit cards, known as Travel Cards, to pay for business trip expenses. According to the rules, “charges made to the Travel Card may be subject to review under the Open Public Records Act.”
Christie contends he is exempt from those travel regulations because of memos that state budget officials sent to former governors Brendan Byrne in 1979 and Christine Todd Whitman in 2000. However, if Christie and his staff used the cards, those records are unlikely to be exempt from ORPA.
As Christie eyes a run for the White House in 2016, the false statements about travel records undercut his efforts to promote himself as a reformer and champion of “open and honest government.”
“Today, a new era of accountability and transparency is here,” said Christie in his 2010 inauguration speech. “Today, change has arrived.”
The Christie travel records dispute began in January with the reporter’s request for accounts of the trip expenses for the governor and his senior staff in 2012 and 2013.
After a four-month delay, the governor’s office released partial records for 13 out-of-state trips taken by Christie. Yet it appears there are at least 10 other official trips for which the administration did not provide any records, including travel to the 2013 Super Bowl.
The reporter sued for the records in July. Christie’s lawyers are asking the judge to dismiss the complaint, asserting the governor has fully complied with the records law. The case is scheduled to be heard Thursday by Jacobson in Trenton.
Before Christie took office as New Jersey governor, he already had a reputation as a high-rolling traveler when taxpayers are footing the bill.
As a U.S. Attorney, Christie was singled out by the Justice Department’s inspector general for violating travel regulations with excessive lodging expenses on two-thirds of his trips from 2007 to 2009.
“In terms of percentage of travel, U.S. Attorney C was the U.S. Attorney who most often exceeded the government rate without adequate justification,” stated the report. Christie has since acknowledged that he is U.S. Attorney C.
Christie stayed at the Four Seasons in Washington, DC for $475 a night and at Nine Zero Hotel in Boston for $449 a night. Both charges were more than double the federal governments’ allowable rate.
And rather than take a taxi in Boston, Christie prearranged a $236 car service for his round-trip between airport and hotel – though the locations were only four miles apart.
Christie refused to be interviewed about those expenses, according the inspector general’s report.
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DISCLOSURE: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff in Lagerkvist v. Office of Governor, MER-L-1504-14, filed in Mercer County Superior Court.