Judge to decide if public learns details of Wildwood Crest police misconduct cases

NJ transparency advocate John Paff requested records including letters from the Cape May County Prosecutor to  Wildwood Crest’s Mayor regarding alleged police misconduct.  Interesting here is that one of the two police officers involved wants the letters released to clear his name, he says.  State Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson, who will make his decision next week, stated, “Those letters are filled with meaning that could be helpful to the public in understanding why two high-ranking officers left public office.”   –NJFOG

Press of Atlantic City
May 6, 2015
By Michael Miller
(Full article here and also posted in its entirety below.)

ATLANTIC CITY – A state judge on Wednesday said he would rule next week whether the public should see letters that prompted two Wildwood Crest police officers to take early retirement.

In the letters, Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor informed the borough that Lt. Michael Hawthorne and Capt. David Mayer would not be called to testify as witnesses in future criminal cases because of their alleged misconduct.

Neither the police department nor the borough has explained the alleged misconduct.

Taylor in court papers has argued his letters to Mayor Carl Groon were confidential. Groon supervised the police department.

State Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson said he would decide by next week whether to release the records.

“Those letters are filled with meaning that could be helpful to the public in understanding why two high-ranking officers left public office,” he said.

Public-records advocate John Paff, of Somerset, requested the letters along with other documents such as an investigative report by former State Police Det. James Fallon who looked into the allegations of misconduct on behalf of the borough.

Neither officer was charged with a crime, but one – Hawthorne – has been urging the judge to release all of the records in a bid, he said, to clear his name.

“I lost my job for doing my job. I want the letters to be released,” Hawthorne said Wednesday.

Mayer’s lawyer, Joseph Rodgers, urged the judge to keep all the records confidential to protect his privacy.

Paff is also seeking the separation agreements between the borough and the two officers. The borough considers these to be confidential personnel records.

Johnson rejected Borough Solicitor Doreen Corino’s contention that members of the public could not discuss the case at Borough Council meetings. Hawthorne has confronted elected officials at recent public meetings.

Johnson said the borough and the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office could not release any records until he has ruled. But he said his order has no bearing on other members of the public.

“I’m not in a position to tell anyone they can’t express their First Amendment rights,” he said. “I’m not going to muzzle him. It’s not my place to muzzle him.”

Taylor has argued that releasing the letters would lead him to conduct future communications with police department supervisors by phone.

But Paff’s lawyer, Richard Gutman, said the public has a strong interest in knowing about misconduct among public officials.

“Am I hearing a law enforcement official say he will evade the Open Public Records Act by communicating something orally?” Gutman asked. “The public has a need to know what its government is doing if we’re to have a meaningful democracy. The alternative is, ‘OK, we’re going to whisper it. We’re going to do it by telephone.’ I think that’s very sad, your honor.”