State pays high price fighting public records requests

Reported in the Burlington County Times on Sept. 9, 2014

By JILL COLVIN | Posted: Tuesday, September 9, 2014

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration has paid out more than $400,000 to reimburse plaintiffs’ attorneys in open records request cases since 2012, new records show.

The information, obtained through the state’s Open Public Records Act, shows the state paid out more than $441,000 reimbursing plaintiffs’ lawyers fees in 23 cases pertaining to requests from January 2012 through Aug. 7 of this year that wound up in court. The sum does not include other costs to the state, such as government lawyers’ time.

The state can be forced to cover legal fees if a judge determines documents were unlawfully denied.

“It’s a half-a-million dollars of wasted money,” said Attorney Bruce Rosen, who received one of the payments. “It boggles the mind,” he added, because in all of the cases, the plaintiffs were ultimately found by the courts to be entitled to the records.

A spokesman for Christie’s office declined to comment.

Attorneys representing media organizations and government watchdogs in cases filed in search of public records have complained that Christie’s administration routinely stonewalls even the most basic requests, from out-of-state travel records to visitor logs at the governor’s mansion. They say the situation has grown worse this year.

A spokesman for the state attorney general’s office said he could not immediately provide data about reimbursements in other kinds of cases. But several parties involved in the suits expressed surprise at the sum.

“It’s outrageous, and it reflects the Christie administration’s knee-jerk position to always say no and then end up being forced to say yes,” Udi Ofer, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “The Christie administration’s default positon of denying public records requests has left New Jersey taxpayers paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct legal fees and much more in wasted government resources.”

The reimbursements range from as low as $200 in one case brought by the ACLU to $183,500 in a case brought by the news organization Gannett against the New Jersey state police. The case, according to a 2012 legal brief, was filed by the Courier-Post newspaper in South Jersey to obtain records concerning guns recovered in the city of Camden, including where and when guns were found.

Rosen argued the public would be better served investing the legal resources elsewhere. He said he expects the sum to continue to grow as pending cases work their way through court.