HIGH SECRECY – Judge orders Gov. Christie to turn over air travel records to NJ Watchdog
By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog
Gov. Chris Christie’s hide-and-seek game over his state travel expense records continued with mixed results last week in Mercer County Superior Court.
Judge Mary C. Jacobson ordered the governor’s office to provide documentation of air travel expenses, including costs and itineraries. She awarded legal fees to a New Jersey Watchdog reporter and instructed the state to turn over the records within 10 days.
But Jacobson also ruled the names of hotels where Christie stayed at taxpayers’ expense should be kept confidential for security reasons. In evidence submitted to the court under seal, the administration argued that revealing the governor’s lodging locations in 2012 and 2013 could somehow put him in future danger.
Then the judge threw the rest of the reporter’s public records lawsuit out of court on narrow technical grounds.
The reporter sought records of state “Travel Cards” used to pay for expenses. However, since those words were capitalized in the request – “Travel Cards” not “travel cards” – Jacobson ruled against release of documents from an American Express credit card account that paid for the governor’s travel.
The judge also decided the request for “travel vouchers” only included records of expenses for which employees were reimbursed, but did not encompass “payment vouchers” for travel expenses paid directly by the state.
Among the excluded documents is a $7,583 “payment voucher” for three hotel rooms in New Orleans, for which the state reimbursed a third party. New Jersey Watchdog obtained that document and the American Express statement from another source.
“This is just about semantics,” complained the reporter’s attorney, Donald M. Doherty Jr. “The governor’s office knew exactly what my client wanted.”
Jacobson said she was troubled by the lack of cooperation from the governor’s office. She cited associate counsel Javier Diaz, who denied records requests as being “unclear” and did not respond to emails from the reporter seeking clarification.
“The court was not thrilled with the response by Mr. Diaz on the Travel Cards,” said the judge.
Instead of ordering the state to produce the documents, Jacobson suggested the reporter should start from scratch by submitting a revised records request to the governor’s office. The initial request was filed 10 months ago.
During the hearing, the judge instructed the state to turn over air travel records for Christie’s trip to Dallas in April 2013 to libertarian activist John Paff. Jacobson heard the two separate public records cases during the same proceeding.
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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.