New Jersey’s public records fights prove costly
New Jersey taxpayers are on the hook for more than $1 million for the state's failed attempts to keep records secret over the last four years, according to data obtained by The Associated Press.
The information, obtained through the state's Open Public Records Act, shows that the state paid out $1,076,013 in taxpayer money reimbursing plaintiffs' lawyers fees in 54 cases from January 2012 through March 4.
That includes $360,780 from 12 cases in which individuals and media organizations successfully fought decisions by Gov. Chris Christie's office not to release information. Other cases involved requesters forced to go to court to get information from the state police, Department of Education and other state agencies.
Christie took office promising "a new era of accountability and transparency," but his administration has been accused of stonewalling records requests. While journalists say there have been signs of improvement in how the administration handles some requests, media outlets have sued over access to visitor logs at the governor's mansion, out-of-state travel records and details about public contracts.
"You're either in this to have a transparent government, or you're in this to fight it tooth and nail," said Bruce Rosen, an attorney who represents media organizations. "I for one don't know why they would fight any of this. It's not their government, it's our government."
Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie, said that the number of settlements and court-ordered reimbursements can be traced to the "unprecedented number of OPRA requests that this administration has been subject to." He said that many of the denials stem from lawyers determining that releasing information could compromise the governor's safety.
Information wasn't available on how many OPRA requests the governor's office had received compared with previous administrations, but Roberts said that Christie's office received 10,000 more requests last year than in his first year in office.
Roberts also notes that the state attorney general's office, which represents the state in the OPRA court fights, netted about $350 million last year for the state through unrelated legal settlements.
OPRA gives anyone the right to request documents from government agencies, except for records covered by a series of exemptions. A requester who disagrees when a government agency says something isn't public can appeal to either the Government Records Council or state courts. The state can be forced to cover legal fees if a judge determines documents were unlawfully denied.
The state paid plaintiffs' lawyers in eight cases last year as Christie was preparing for and then running for the Republican presidential nomination. The cases included a fight by WNYC and investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist for a media contact list created by the governor's office, and Lagerkvist's request for records of Christie's travel outside of the state in 2012 and 2013.
"It's bad enough that Gov. Christie uses the power of his office to withhold any public records that might embarrass him. It's even worse when he saddles taxpayers with the costs of defending that unwarranted secrecy in court," Lagerkvist said in an email. "The good news is that all of the bad press and adverse court rulings have forced the governor's office to be more responsive in how it handles records requests."
The $1 million figure doesn't include the cost for state lawyers to work on the cases. There are still 37 OPRA cases open, according to the attorney general's office.
Iris Bromberg, a transparency law fellow for the ACLU of New Jersey, said that the unlawful denials divert resources from protecting the public's right to access information, cutting away at the public's trust.
"Open government is the cornerstone of democracy," Bromberg said. "We need it for the public to access the performance of public officials."
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