NJ Watchdog sues Christie for travel expense records


WHAT REFORM? Gov. Chris Christie tries to avoid public disclosure of his travel expenses

By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog

As Chris Christie eyes a run for the White House in 2016, he’s en route to becoming the most prolific traveler in the history of New Jersey governors.

“I’ve been in 19 states now in the last four months or so,” Christie boasted during an appearance on CNBC earlier this month.

Yet the self-styled reform advocate is trying to avoid public disclosure on who pays for which trips — and what costs are borne by taxpayers.

A pair of lawsuits by a New Jersey Watchdog reporter against the governor’s office may shed new light on information those state secrets.

The latest legal action, filed last week in Mercer County Superior Court, seeks records of Christie’s travel expenses paid by state government. In a parallel suit, the reporter is asking for release of state records that show who else funds the governor’s sojourns.

Since January, Christie has refused to release records of his excursions paid by third parties — including political groups and others — disclosures required under state travel regulations.

Initially, the governor’s staff denied the request as being “unclear … therefore invalid.” In court documents, Christie’s lawyers now claim he is exempt from the rules, citing a 1979 letter to former Gov. Brendan Byrne from a state budget director.

The governor also denied access to state Travel Card statements for his trips on New Jersey’s tab. Once again, his staff rejected the request as being “unclear” — even though the rules clearly state “charges made to the Travel Card may be subject to review under the Open Public Records Act.”

Meanwhile, Christie brags about his busy road schedule, which includes his campaign stops and fundraising missions as chair of the Republican Governors Association. “You’re going to see me travel all through the South,” he told CNBC.

Christie’s frequent travels began early in his first term. Two years ago, the Star-Ledger reported the governor took 30 trips to 14 states totaling 54 days during an eight month period.

But in response to New Jersey Watchdog’s requests for records of all travels from 2012 to present, Christie released partial expense reports for only 13 trips — an average of one trip every two months.

The records provided were heavily redacted by the governor’s staff, citing privacy and security concerns. The names of all hotels were crossed out, and the lodging receipts were withheld. In several instances, the purpose of trips or means of transportation were not disclosed. No meal expenses were reported.

While many details remain sketchy, the documents indicate Christie plays fast and loose with guidelines that govern New Jersey officials.

State regulations allow “travel to New York City or Philadelphia metropolitan areas but only if the travel does not include an overnight (hotel) stay.”

In contrast, Christie prefers overnight stays at unnamed hotels in Manhattan despite the fact the governor lives 40 miles away in a northern New Jersey suburb. Those sleepovers included:

  • Aug. 25, 2013 at an unnamed hotel. The reason for the travel was not disclosed. The cost of the room was $264.54. One-page hotel invoice redacted in its entirety.
  • Jan. 8, 2013 at an unnamed hotel for “early a.m. media events” – $237.60.
  • Sept. 10, 2012 at an unnamed hotel – $342.01. The following morning Christie attended a 9/11 memorial ceremony at the World Trade Center, according to a copy of his daily schedule attached to that expense report.

Expense reports for two trips don’t mention the city or the hotel:

  • Oct. 11, 2013 at an undisclosed location for an undisclosed reason — $250.78.
  • July 2, 2012 at an unnamed hotel at an undisclosed location for “early morning media” — $266.27.

No matter whether Christie’s trips are personal, political or state business, taxpayers are also saddled with the cost of his State Police security details — including the troopers’ salaries, overtime pay, lodging, meals, transportation and other expenses. The state is arguing release of information about past trips could compromise the governor’s safety and privacy.

However, the governor’s office did disclose an itemized invoice showing the state paid a private company $16,950 to provide security services for Christie during his personal trip to Israel in April 2012.

A hearing in the reporter’s lawsuit for the third-party expense documents is scheduled for July 29 before Judge Mary C. Jacobson. The suit over the governor’s state-paid travel records is headed for court Sept. 19, also in front of Jacobson.

Before Christie took office as governor, he already had a reputation as a high-rolling traveler when someone else is paying 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, D.C., 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 by the inspector general about his expenses, according the report.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney’s camp was aware of those high-rolling ways while Christie was being considered as a vice-presidential candidate, according to a TIME magazine excerpt from “Double Down: Game Change.”

“He and his staff were overbearing and hard to work with, demanding in ways that would have been unthinkable from any other surrogate …” reported authors Mark Halperin and John Hellerman. “Trenton insisted on private jets, lavish spreads of food, space for a massive entourage.”

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DISCLOSURE: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff in Lagerkvist v. Office of Governor, MER-L-821-14 and Lagerkvist v. Office of Governor, MER-L-1504-14 – both filed in Mercer County Superior Court.