Wielding a light saber for open government

Part 4 of 4 in the series Sunshine Week

This is the third in a series of essays written by Watchdog.org reporters to commemorate Sunshine Week.

By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog

To most people, I seem like a nice guy. But not in the eyes of politicians and custodians of public records across New Jersey.

To them, I am Darth Vader, New Jersey Watchdog is the Death Star and Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity is the evil Empire that supports my frequent invasions of their government secrets.

RECORDS WARRIORS: To many politicians, New Jersey Watchdog is the Death Star and Franklin Center is the evil Empire that supports my frequent invasions of their governmental secrets.

Almost all of my stories rely on the state’s Open Public Records Act, as well as common law regarding government documents. I file hundreds of requests a year, and I often get what I seek.

When I don’t, I take the custodians and their agencies to court and sue them. Our lawyer takes the cases on a contingent fee basis. If he wins, the agency can be forced to pay his legal bills under state law.

So far, we’ve been pretty successful.

For example, an administrative law judge has ordered the state treasury to turn over almost all of the documents the agency tried to keep secret from New Jersey Watchdog during the past four years. (Click here for the story.)

The documents focus on a pension scheme involving New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Gov. Chris Christie’s second-in-command.

When she was a county sheriff, Guadagno made false and misleading statements that enabled her “retired” top aide to improperly collect an $85,000 a year pension, in addition his $87,500 annual salary.

Meanwhile, in Superior Court, I’m at war with the attorney general’s Division of Criminal Justice over records of its hush-hush investigation of Guadagno — who happens to be a former deputy director of DCJ. (Click here for the story.)

Over the AG’s objections, the judge has forced DCJ to produce an index describing the documents it wants to keep secret. We expect to win release of those records, though it may take months or even years of battling.

I view myself as a Jedi Master, not Darth Vader. I am a warrior who fights for open and transparent governance. Secrecy is the friend of corruption, fraud and waste of your money as a taxpayer. I approach my work without fear or favor — and without regard to whether there’s a D, R or I behind the name of any politician.

Sunshine Week is a reminder that we need more Jedi Knights and fewer Dark Lords.

May the Force be with you.

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