Philadelphia Inquirer / philly.com
May 3, 2015
by Jan Hefler
John Paff retreats to a small room in his chilly basement each morning and fires up his computer.
Methodically, he lets fly a barrage of e-mails to pry loose confidential documents that local governments and New Jersey agencies closely guard.
Disciplinary reports of rogue cops. Dashboard footage of traffic stops. Ethics violations filed against lawyers. Health benefits that part-time officials quietly give themselves.
As chair of the Open Government Advocacy Project for the New Jersey Libertarian Party, Paff submits about 700 requests for documents from local governments across the state each year. Targeting corruption, government overreach, and wasteful spending, he blogs about his findings.
“I try to hold a mirror up” to what government is doing, said Paff, who’s been at it 20 years. “People are kept in the dark.”
The retired businessman has become a transparency guru. When officials deny him access to records, he cites laws. If that fails, he sues. One case he initiated led to a 2010 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that said government entities must disclose out-of-court settlements, confidentiality clauses be damned.
The agreements don’t admit wrongdoing, but Paff says the public is entitled to know how much government entities pay to avoid embarrassment at trial or to save on legal costs.
“I like to give a true picture of what government is doing. . . . I can effect change doing this,” Paff, 57, said during an interview in the modest rancher in Franklin Township, Somerset County, that he shares with his wife, Diane, and their children, Alex, 18, and Katie, 13.
Last year, Paff was inducted into the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists Hall of Fame for making local and state government more transparent. He was the 15th person inducted since 2003.
Sarah Nordgren, an Associated Press executive who was on the selection committee, called him “a hero of open government.”
“In New Jersey, a state in which public corruption is no stranger, Paff has worked statewide, driven by a passion to make certain public officials follow the law in providing records for which the public has the right,” she said.
Paff, a volunteer firefighter and president of the Middlebush Volunteer Fire Department in Somerset, also has detractors.
Two years ago, George Heflich Sr., the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association president, chastised Paff and another firefighter in a speech at a Wildwood convention attended by thousands. The two men are “trying to destroy our association by trying to make us reveal who receives relief . . . to satisfy their ego,” Heflich said, contending Paff wanted records to see who had received financial aid.
Paff said he was shocked because he had not asked for names. Instead, he requested details about the retirement pensions paid to the association’s executives. “An organization that collects tax money should be publicly accountable,” he said on his blog, NJ Open Government Notes.
A court ordered the records released.
Paff’s victories don’t bring him money – just the records he seeks. Often, the lawyers who file complaints for him are awarded legal fees from towns that balk at providing documents.
Paff’s son admires his father. “A lot of people will not do what he does. A lot are afraid,” Alex Paff said.
Some town clerks and police chiefs dislike Paff, saying he is intrusive.
Hainesport Township Administrator Leo Selb said he had found Paff to be polite and a “check and balance” on government. “But I know many towns, when they hear his name, the hair goes up on their back. . . . He usually goes into areas that are sensitive or potentially controversial, so if you’re the clerk, you are caught in the middle,” Selb said.
Last year, when Hainesport denied Paff’s request for records on the town’s health-care coverage, Paff got a court order from Burlington County Assignment Judge Ronald Bookbinder.
The documents revealed the town’s part-time committee members were receiving benefits, a practice many towns have eliminated to cut their budgets. The town also had to pay Paff’s $5,000 legal bill.
At a January town meeting, Mayor Michael Fitzpatrick angrily called Paff an outsider who was “only trying to sensationalize himself at the expense of our town.” Fitzpatrick also said Paff had falsely accused the committee of corruption.
Paff defended himself on his blog, saying he never contended the health payment was illegal. He linked to his lawsuit as proof. He said his purpose was to hold the officials accountable to taxpayers.
Often, Paff seeks records based on tips from the public. Other times, government actions arouse his curiosity. He does not care which party controls the entity, he said.
Paff also reports the names of lawyers who were disciplined for ethics violations or for misusing clients’ money. He said reports from the Office of Attorney Ethics were difficult to gather at first, and he has been pressing for the release of the grievances clients filed.
Now, he is focusing on the internal affairs reports of police officers who cross the line.
“The disciplinary process should be more transparent, especially with what is going on in Baltimore and Ferguson,” he said. “People are starting to demand this. A lot of these societal problems would be abated if we had greater transparency.”
After graduating from Rutgers University in 1979 with a degree in economics, he started an insurance business. Nine years later, he sold it and bought rental properties. Now he maintains four properties.
Paff joined the Libertarian Party in the ’90s and once was arrested for distributing leaflets critical of the IRS outside a post office on Tax Day. In 2009, he ran for lieutenant governor.
But Paff said he had no political ambitions and preferred to spend his time exposing the inner workings of local government.
“Often, the same people run [for office] in these little towns, and they run the government like a family business and have an attitude. . . . People who live there are intimidated,” Paff said. As an outsider, he says it is easier for him to ask a lot of questions and demand answers.
Putting a headset on when the phone rings in his basement office, Paff eagerly listens to people who call with stories of how they have been unfairly treated or how their questions have been ignored. He devises a plan to get at the truth.
Then Paff checks his in-box. Maybe new documents have arrived that hold pieces to another puzzle in another town.