Judge gives NJ one last chance to keep ‘Doublegate’ secrets

INDEX: The 96-page Vaughn index lists 779 pages of documents gathered by DCJ during a probe requested in May 2011 by the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System board of trustees.

By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog

A judge is giving the state’s Division of Criminal Justice one final chance to argue why an index of records from a hush-hush criminal investigation involving Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno should not be released to a New Jersey Watchdog reporter.

“I frankly don’t see why it should be kept confidential,” said Judge Mary C. Jacobson during a Thursday hearing in Mercer County Superior Court. “It’s highly unusual to keep a Vaughn index confidential.”

The 96-page Vaughn index lists 779 pages of documents gathered by DCJ during a probe requested in May 2011 by the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System board of trustees.

One allegation is Guadagno, as Monmouth County sheriff in 2008, made false and misleading statements that enabled her top aide to improperly collect an $85,000-a-year pension in addition to his $87,500 salary. The facts were first reported by New Jersey Watchdog in October 2010.

Two months ago, the PFRS board learned the investigation was closed. But DCJ has refused to disclose the result of the Doublegate probe or any details.

“What the state overlooks is that the investigation itself is highly suspect,” argued the reporter’s attorney, Donald M. Doherty Jr., in court briefs. “It smacks of a dirty deal and the use of the investigative exemption to avoid exposing a sordid situation.”

Guadagno is a former deputy director of DCJ. Faced with conflict-of-interest concerns, Gov. Chris Christie did not exercise his constitutional power to appoint an independent investigator or prosecutor for a case involving his second-in-command.

Spokespeople for Christie, Guadagno and DCJ have declined comment on the case.

Before ruling on the index, Jacobson offered DCJ another opportunity to provide evidence the release would somehow harm the public interest. DCJ repeatedly did not respond to previous orders by the judge requesting specifics.

“I didn’t know he (the plaintiff) was still interested,” Deputy Attorney General Eric S. Pasternack told the judge.

The reporter also is seeking 41 pages of the records listed in the Vaughn index, currently sealed under a temporary protective order. The judge instructed the reporter to use the index to narrow the scope of his request to key documents.

Jacobson said she plans to rule on the case sometime next month.

Meanwhile, the same reporter is on the verge of winning a lengthy battle over similar documents. That case began with an Open Public Records Act request that was denied in March 2011.

Two months ago, Administrative Law Judge Linda M. Kassekert ordered the state Treasury to release 25 of 26 documents from its internal review of the Guadagno pension controversy – a precursor to the DCJ investigation.

Those records have yet to be released. The next scheduled step is an April 30 hearing before Kassekert to determine whether the state will pay the plaintiff’s legal fees.

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DISCLOSURE: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff in public records cases against DCJ (Mercer Co. Superior Court, MER-L-464-13) and Treasury (OAL GRC 6985-13 & GRC 2011-110).

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.