Christie’s stall on travel records reaches biblical proportions

By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog

Gov. Chris Christie’s stalling tactic to avoid the release of public records is reaching biblical proportions.

Jonah reportedly spent three days in the belly of a whale. Noah and his entourage were on an ark while it rained for 40 days and nights, according to scriptures.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie makes a point at a news conference last month.

In comparison, Christie’s delay in declaring whether his office will release expense records of his taxpayer-funded travel has reached 80 business days — and counting.

This week, New Jersey Watchdog received notice the governor’s office is taking its eighth two-week extension in responding to a records request filed Jan. 15.

“This email serves to hereby request a two-week extension regarding your OPRA request nos. W82964 and W82965,” it states.

Like its predecessors, the message does not offer any reason for the delays.

Under OPRA, the state Open Public Records Act, a governmental agency must grant or deny access to records “as soon as possible but not later than seven business days after receiving the request.” An agency is only allowed extra time if it needs to retrieve records from storage or archives.

In contrast, Christie and company have had 17 weeks to decide whether to provide records of the state-paid travel expenses of the governor and his senior staff. Requests for explanation of the delays have gone unanswered.

By stringing out the process indefinitely — a devious tactic that clearly circumvents the letter and spirit of OPRA — Christie’s crew technically avoids making a decision that can be appealed in court. The public’s right-to-know, meanwhile, languishes in limbo.

The great irony is that Christie promoted himself as a champion of reform throughout his first term in office.

“These measures are about good, open and honest government, where the playing field is level for everyone and the rules are unambiguous,” said Christie in 2010 while campaigning for reforms.

The question is whether Christie’s will ever respond to the OPRA request, short of another lawsuit at the expense of taxpayers.

A New Jersey Watchdog reporter already is suing the governor’s office over its denial of request W82960.

W82960 seeks specific records of travel paid for by third-parties on behalf of Christie and his senior staff. After three two-week extensions, the governor’s office denied the request as being “unclear.” Javier Diaz, a legal specialist to the governor, did not respond to questions on what was unclear about OPRA request.

In response, a New Jersey Watchdog reporter is suing the governor’s office for the records in Mercer County Superior Court. A hearing before Judge Mary C. Jacobson is scheduled for June 23.

“There is the public interest in assessing just who is paying for our government officials to visit with them,” argued attorney Donald M. Doherty Jr., in a brief filed last week. “If a person is judged by the company he keeps, politicians are similarly judged by who they travel to see.”

W82965, a parallel request, seeks specific records of travel by Christie and his senior staff paid by the state taxpayers. Regulations require the documents to be created and kept on file by the governor’s office.

“W82965 is a clear and specific request for public records,” the reporter wrote in a March 12 email to the records custodian. “If, for some reason, you believe it to be unclear, as your office has contended with W82960, please state exactly why you believe that is the case.”

The governor’s office has not replied. Nor has it acknowledged New Jersey Watchdog’s offer to drop W82964, a duplicate request caused by a snafu in the state’s web site.

Contact Mark Lagerkvist at mlagerkvist@watchdog.org

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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