MapLight, a campaign finance watchdog group, has filed a lawsuit in Mercer County Superior Court challenging the state’s refusal to release emails between former Governor Chris Christie’s administration and Jared Kushner’s companies.
The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in the wake of a decision by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration to go along with Christie’s demand that he have the power to veto requests for records from his time in office that would normally be public.
The Christie’s administration spent almost $1 million fighting open records requests during his eight years in Trenton. His attorney general’s office then issued a memorandum before he left office that circumvents the normal process for handling public records requests. The memorandum designates all emails and electronic records of the Office of the Governor as “privileged” or “confidential.” The emails and electronic records are maintained by the New Jersey Office of Information Technology. The public can’t receive copies of the documents unless Christie and his law firm approve the release of individual records
The lawsuit is related to records for tax credits that were issued to a Jared Kushner company. In late 2017, the Jersey Economic Development Authority renewed a $33 million tax credit to Kushner’s One Journal Square Project, a planned mixed-use skyscraper development in Jersey City.
MapLight reporter Andrew Perez submitted an OPRA request to the New Jersey Division of Archives and Records Management asking for copies of all emails exchanged from February 1, 2017 to January 15, 2018 between officials in the Governor’s office and employees of Kushner Companies, and all emails exchanged from February 1, 2017 to January 15, 2018 between officials in the Governor’s office and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority relating to the Kushner Companies.
Christie’s lawyer, Jeff Chiesa said “a limited number” of responsive documents had been identified but denied the records request, claiming the records were privileged.
According to the lawsuit, the process raises two troubling issues. It designates all emails and electronic documents as “confidential” without anyone reviewing any of them, and sole discretion to grant or deny access to records is bestowed upon a private citizen and his private law firm. The records are never reviewed by anyone employed by the State of New Jersey, which would be the normal process for handling public records requests.
The lawsuit claims that the state violated the Open Public Records act and New Jersey Common Law by refusing to release records that are public information.
MapLight is being represented by the top public records lawyer in the state, Walter Luers. (Luers also represents Planet Princeton).