Open-government activist pursues investigation of Cape May County sheriff

“The courts have held that once an investigation is closed, the government’s interest in confidentiality is less,” said Paff, who believes that the public has a right to know what an investigation is about, even if no charges are eventually filed.  -NJFOG

Press of Atlantic City /
November 17, 2015
(Full article available here and re-posted below.)

A two-year battle by an open-government activist to find out more about possible incidents involving Cape May County Sheriff Gary G. Schaffer is going to court in December.

John Paff, a government watchdog from Somerset County, said Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson has agreed to hear oral arguments in the case in Mercer County on Dec. 8.

Paff has spent two years seeking records from the New Jersey State Police and state Division of Criminal Justice pertaining to what Paff said are allegations Schaffer was involved in some sort of misconduct or impropriety while working at the Cape May County Police Academy and the Ocean City Aquatic Center.

Paff filed records requests in 2014 under the state’s Open Public Records Act, or OPRA, but was denied with explanations that records pertaining to a criminal investigation were exempt from public access.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Paff said this convinced him rumors of an investigation were true. He decided to wait a year, figuring the records might be supplied when the investigation was complete.

He filed new OPRA requests this year, but got letters of denial July 16 from the State Police and July 28 from the state Division of Criminal Justice. The State Police letter said there are “two investigation reports” but they are part of a criminal investigation and are exempt from public access laws.

Thomas Preston, a custodian of records for the State Police, said the release was prevented pursuant to Hughes Executive Order No. 48 issued on December 18, 1968.

“No person having custody of State Police files shall turn over the same to any other person who is not a member of a duly recognized law enforcement agency unless ordered to do so by a court of competent jurisdiction or by the Governor of the State of New Jersey. Based upon the above, I must deny your request,” Preston wrote.

Paff filed suit against the State Police and Division of Criminal Justice to gain access to the records and to seek attorney fees. In November, the two state agencies wrote Jacobson in opposition, noting allegations of misconduct against Schaffer did not result in the filing of any criminal charges.

This could seem to indicate any investigation authorities may have been conducting is complete, although Paff said he has not been able to get an answer to this one way or another. He argued that if it is closed, it improves his quest to find out what it was about. He said if he gets the information, he may even agree it should not be made public.

“It’s not even clear if the investigation is closed or not. The courts have held that once an investigation is closed, the government’s interest in confidentiality is less,” Paff said.

Paff said he has abandoned his OPRA requests, but is still seeking the information under what is known as the common law right of access.

“The public’s right to know exceeds the government’s argument for privacy,” Paff said.

Schaffer did not return a phone call for comment Tuesday from The Press of Atlantic City. He declined comment on the issue last year when a reporter asked him about it.

Even though no charges have been filed, Paff wants to know what the investigation was about. He argues it does not mean there was no wrongdoing. As an elected official, Paff argues, Schaffer doesn’t merely have to follow the law, but has to answer to voters and public opinion.

“The public has a right to decide if they want to elect him sheriff,” Paff said. “Confidence in law enforcement is waning and part of it is a lack of transparency. I’m calling him out. What were you investigated for, Sheriff?”

Paff expects Jacobson to look over the records privately as well as hear oral arguments before making any decisions.