Names sought on GWB scandal-related legal bills

In 2014, the Trial Court held that the names of State employees in legal bills were confidential; the Appellate Division heard arguments on Jan. 25, 2016 on why the names should be released. -NJFOG


January 25, 2016 (updated 1/26/2016)
state house bureau | The Record

A New Jersey appeals court heard arguments Monday on whether to name 30 or more state employees who have billed taxpayers for their legal costs when they give testimony on the inner workings of the Christie administration.

The bills themselves are public – totaling more than $800,000 at last count – but the names of the employees are confidential, attorneys for Christie have argued for nearly two years.

At issue are the identities of at least 30 current and former employees who have been called to give testimony on the George Washington Bridge scandal and Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegations that top Christie administration officials tried to extort her.

Attorneys for North Jersey Media Group, which publishes The Record, argued that state taxpayers have a right to know whose legal bills they are footing. Samuel J. Samaro, an attorney for the company, said that Bridgegate is still a matter of great public interest and that the newspaper has been seeking the names for years.

State law requires the New Jersey attorney general to approve or deny requests to cover legal bills from public employees who are being sued or called to testify in legal settings. But those decisions are made privately and may be influenced by “cronyism,” Samaro argued.
GWB scandal archive:  Click here to read all of The Record’s past coverage
Jeffrey S. Jacobson, one of the highest-ranking lawyers in the state Attorney General’s Office, argued that attorney ethics rules in New Jersey generally bar lawyers from naming their clients.

“The identity of a client is often usually protected by the attorney-client privilege,” Jacobson, who is special counsel to the attorney general, argued. He added that “the [state] Supreme Court had decided this issue very clearly – there’s really no room for debate about it.”

“The case law says no such thing,” Samaro said. Only sensitive issues such as financial or mental problems are grounds to keep a client’s name secret, he said.

“If you accept public employment in the state of New Jersey, you agree that we as a public are entitled to know more about you than would be true if you took a job at a private enterprise,” he argued.

A trial court judge ruled in June 2014 that the names should not be released.

“This court is extremely concerned with the ‘chilling effect’ the disclosure of the identities could have on the employees’ exercise of the right to counsel, both as to the employees involved in this case as well as … in the future,” Superior Court Judge Paul Innes ruled.

Eleven law firms had billed more than $890,000 combined for their work as of October 2014, the last month for which The Record has obtained copies of redacted invoices. Those lawyers have helped at least 30 clients prepare for testimony before a legislative committee investigating the bridge scandal, respond to subpoenas from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark or testify before a federal grand jury. The Morristown firm Riker Danzig, which represents 17 people, had billed around one-third of the total alone.

Those costs are in addition to the $8 million billed by Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, the law firm Christie hired to investigate the closure of Fort Lee access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September 2013 and Zimmer’s allegations. U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman’s office later released a letter clearing Christie’s cabinet members from Zimmer’s allegations.

They also come on top of the $1 million billed by the Chicago law firm Jenner & Block for its work managing the state Legislature’s investigation into the bridge scandal.

Some of the current and former employees have been identified outside North Jersey Media Group’s lawsuit, which was filed under the state’s Open Public Records Act.

The governor’s former spokesman, Michael Drewniak, had around $77,000 in legal costs covered by state taxpayers. Drewniak was interviewed by a federal grand jury in Newark and by the state legislative committee.

Bill Stepien, formerly one of Christie’s political aides, had $175,000 in legal costs covered. Christina Renna, a former employee of the governor’s office, received around $50,000.

The article is online here and re-posted above.