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NJ judge says state wrongly denied records

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A New Jersey judge ruled Monday that Gov. Chris Christie’s administration must honor an activist’s public records requests for requests filed by others.

George Washington Bridge
George Washington Bridge (Spencer Platt, Getty Images)

The decision from Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson finds fault with the state’s recent strategy of denying such requests on the grounds that people who ask for government records have a privacy right. A state government lawyer said that people can use government records requests to explore lawsuits or dig up dirt on political opponents — things that Jacobson said need not be confidential.

“I can’t see any expectation of privacy, whether you’re attorney or not, or a newspaper person who’s trying to get a scoop or not,” Jacobson said in her ruling from the bench Tuesday before a nearly empty courtroom.

She also pointed out that many of the state government’s own forms for requesting public records include a notice that the request itself is considered a public record.

Jacobson gave New Jersey until Aug. 15 to comply with a series of requests from Ed Scheeler. The state must also pay his legal bills in his quest for the documents. The state attorney general’s office has not said whether it will appeal.

Earlier this year, Scheeler made a request of the sort that some investigative reporters and government watchdogs routinely make of the governor’s office. He asked for all the open records requests made to the governor’s office in January. He also asked for requests made regarding closures of lanes last year near the George Washington Bridge, as well as any documents the office provided in response.

Both were denied.

Scheeler, a former photojournalist who is now out on disability due to complications from diabetes, asked seven state agencies for requests that had fielded. All were denied using language similar to the governor’s office’s.

Scheeler, a registered Republican, sued with legal help from the New Jersey branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. Lawyers working for the ACLU gave Jacobson examples of Christie’s office fulfilling request for details of open records requests before the George Washington Bridge lane closures mushroomed into a major distraction for Christie, a possible 2016 presidential candidate.

The plaintiff’s lawyers also noted that the federal government makes Freedom of Information Act requests public on a website.

Scheeler, now 35, has been requesting government documents since he was a teenager in the early 1990s and noticed police officers with cellphones, devices that in those pay-by-the-minute times were expensive and not so common. He made requests and discovered officers were making personal calls on the taxpayers’ dime.

With the advent of electronic records he could get without paying for it, he’s become a regular information requester.

Scheeler, who lives in Woodbine, said he’s made well over 1,000 requests for information, many of them to track how well agencies respond.

Scheeler said Monday that if he gets the requests, he’ll use it to duplicate others’ requests that he believe adhere to state law. And he said if he’s denied, he’ll sue again to fight what he sees is a pattern of problems with how the state’s Open Public Records Act is carried out.

“They don’t want the public to know how horribly they comply with OPRA,” Scheeler said. “It’s pretty bad.”

 

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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