The state has paid out more than $1 million in legal fees for failed attempts to keep public records secret over the last four years, according to a review of records by the Associated Press.
Data obtained by the AP through the state’s Open Public Records Act shows that the state paid out $1,076,013 to reimburse lawyers who represented citizens and journalists in 54 cases from January 2012 through March 4.
Top public records lawyers in the state actually think the amount could be much higher, and they note that it does not include the cost for representatives from the state Attorney General’s office to represent state agencies in court proceedings.
The tally includes $360,780 for 12 cases in which individuals and media organizations successfully fought decisions by Gov. Chris Christie’s office not to release public information. In other cases, citizens and journalists were forced to go to court to get information from state agencies such as the New Jersey State Police and the New Jersey Department of Education. Planet Princeton won one of the 54 cases.
The state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control refused to release records it had on file from a private meeting regarding the issuing of a special liquor license for potential operators of the future Dinky Station cafe and eatery. Lawyers from the state attorney general’s office claimed the commissioner was “a pack rat” and had the records from the “informal meeting” on file by accident.
Before Christie took office he promised a new era of accountability and transparency, but his administration has repeatedly accused of stonewalling on records requests. Many requests, for example a request for the governor’s travel records and spending while he is out of state, have been denied with state officials claiming the information would jeopardize Christie’s safety and pose a security threat.
The Associated Press also sent open-records request to the top lawmakers in all 50 states and most governors, seeking copies of their daily schedules and emails from the government accounts for the week of Feb. 1-7.
All four of New Jersey’s legislative leaders denied a request for records and schedules under the Open Public Records Act. The law exempts certain legislative records, such as correspondence with constituents, from being made public. But in practice, the Legislature exempts itself from disclosing records. Christie denied a request for emails under an exemption for deliberative documents. His office released statements on his schedule that had been made public, although they included no detailed information about his agenda. Instead, they directed the reader to contact his presidential campaign, which he quit after a poor finish in New Hampshire.
Last week, Raritan Borough settled one of the most expensive Open Public Records cases in state history. The Borough has agreed to reimburse $650,000 in legal fees to Gannett Media after a six-year battle over payroll records. Gannett requested the records in a searchable electronic format, and was told they weren’t readily available. A fee of $1,100 was assessed. Gannett proved the records were in fact readily available in the format the news outlet had requested them in.
This week is Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide celebration of access to public information and what it means for you and your community. For a tip sheet on making public records requests in New Jersey, visit the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government’s website.