Interesting issue: Should records requested under OPRA be kept confidential if records containing the same type of information are publicly available online, through the Federal Election Commission in this case? – NJFOG
UPDATE (12/17/2015): A New Jersey appeals court ruled in favor of Gov. Chris Christie’s office today in a dispute over a reporter’s request for the governor’s out-of-state travel expense records. The three-judge panel held reporter Mark Lagerkvist’s request exceeded the limits of New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act. Read article here: http://nj1015.com/court-nixes-attempt-to-obtain-records-on-christies-travel/
December 8, 2015
by Mark Lagerkvist
(full article here and re-posted below)
Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential campaign is revealing his travel secrets — the same type of information the New Jersey governor convinced a court to keep confidential because it would supposedly endanger his safety.
The names and locations of 34 hotels and 32 restaurants where the Christie entourage lodged and dined were listed by Chris Christie for President Inc. in its quarterly report to the Federal Election Commission. Required by law, the 1,030-page document details $2.8 million the campaign spent on various expenses from July through September.
Those disclosures are in direct conflict with the argument Christie used to convince a judge not to release state records of travel expenses racked up by the governor’s Executive Protection Unit and paid by New Jersey taxpayers, including $1 million in American Express charges.
Four months ago, Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson ruled that past records of the EPU’s meals, lodging, and transportation could create a potential security risk for the governor in the future. The troopers assigned to protect Christie often take the same flights and stay at the same hotels as the man they guard.
In court, Jacobson said she based her decision on a confidential sworn statement submitted under court seal by State Police Capt. Kevin Cowan, head of the EPU.
“He unequivocally swears in that certification that release of the information would increase the risk of harm to the governor,” said the judge. (Disclosure: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist was the plaintiff in Lagerkvist vs. Office of Governor, Mercer County Superior Court, MER-L-463-15.)
Yet those are the same types of details provided in the Christie campaign’s report to the FEC, publicly available online at the commission’s website. The record includes the name of the business, address, type of expense, and amount paid — though it does not identify the individual guests.
The result is a paradox: The hotels, restaurants and airlines patronized by Christie and his campaign staff with private money are a matter of public record. Yet details of the public cost caused by Christie’s White House run are kept secret by court order.
The expenses charged to state taxpayers have increased with Christie’s political ambitions, according to cost summaries released by the governor’s office.
Since Christie took office in 2010, EPU expenses have totaled $1.57 million. Of that amount, $1.33 million was charged to American Express cards for unspecified expenses. According to Jacobson, those charges were “almost entirely” for out-of-state trips.
The EPU racked up $146,277 in AmEx bills during the first three months since Christie’s presidential campaign officially began June 30.
In 2014, costs totaled $494,420 as the governor traveled outside New Jersey for more than 100 days. That sum is 22 times more than the $21,704 spent in 2009, former Gov. Jon Corzine’s last year in office.
Since he declared he was running for president on June 30, Christie has been out-of-state all or part of at least part of 115 days, or 72 percent of the time. So far during 2015, he’s been outside of New Jersey on at least 196 days. Throughout his tenure in Trenton, Christie has earned a reputation as a big spender when someone else picks up the tab.
Using a state expense account, Christie spent $82,000 on food and alcohol at MetLife Stadium during the 2010 and 2012 NFL seasons. Fearing a scandal for their rising political star, the State Republican Committee quietly reimbursed the State Treasury for those tabs.
In addition, the governor’s office reported it does not have receipts for more than $247,000 in bills charged to the expense account — two-thirds of the $360,000 Christie spent from 2010 through early 2015.
“We have produced to you all of the receipts/invoices/bills that we located,” said Heather Taylor, the governor’s records custodian and chief ethics officer, in response to an Open Public Records Act request.