The Appellate Division has upheld a Trial Court’s decision to release almost all of a Prosecutor’s file on a jail employee’s use of a county-owned generator during Superstorm Sandy. NJFOG officers John Paff and Walter Luers were the plaintiff and plaintiff’s attorney in this case, respectively. The Appellate decision is available HERE. -NJFOG
December 09, 2015
By Steve Novak
(full article here and re-posted below)
It may never publicly be revealed who from the Warren County jail took publicly-owned generators for personal use during Superstorm Sandy blackouts, but a court has ruled that the investigation into their actions is fair game.
Redacted records detailing the probe — but omitting the names of the accused or witnesses — should be released by the county, according to a New Jersey Appellate Division opinion released Wednesday.
The Appellate decision upholds a lower court’s ruling from two years ago. It gives the county 30 days to release the records or appeal.
“Who’s watching the watchers, and are the watchers playing with a crooked deck? That’s what this is all about,” said John Paff, who filed the lawsuit against the Warren County Prosecutor’s Office in 2012 after requesting the investigation records.
Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project, said he wanted to see if the decision not to prosecute sheriff’s officers was reasonable or if they were given a pass because they were in law enforcement.
Prosecutor Richard Burke and Sheriff David Gallant did not immediately return calls for comment. County counsel Joseph Bell was not available to speak Wednesday.
More than one sheriff’s officer allegedly used county generators during the aftermath of the 2012 storm that knocked out power around the region, in some places for weeks.
The Warren County Sheriff’s Office launched an internal investigation in November 2012 and the case was turned over to the county prosecutor’s office, according to lehighvalleylive.com reports and court documents. That December, the prosecutor’s office determined no criminal charges were warranted.
Gallant at the time said that employees were disciplined and no one was fired.
Paff requested the investigation records in January 2013 and filed suit after receiving two redacted records and being denied the rest.
A Warren County judge that December ruled that the prosecutor’s office must release 13 documents relating to its investigation but later amended her decision and said the court would protect the identity of anyone involved.
The prosecutor’s office appealed to the Appellate Division, supported by the state Attorney General’s Office. They had argued that criminal investigations, even when closed, should remain confidential — that their release could impede future investigations and infringe upon the privacy rights of individuals not charged with a crime.
Paff said that while the names of those accused will not be released, he is looking forward to seeing how the investigation was conducted and plans to publish the documents on his blog, NJ Open Government Notes.
He said his interest goes beyond this particular case — that the decision will inspire “a dialogue” to spur legislators to open up investigation records for public analysis.
“People should be able to view a discretionary act by an official and if it serves the public,” he said. “It is my belief that ultimately there would be more trust in law enforcement if law enforcement were candid.”