Over the last four years, New Jersey has spent more than $900,000 to keep public records private, according to a report by The Record. About half of that is just over the last two years.

According to documents obtained by The Record, the Christie administration went to court 33 times and paid $459,000 to claimants or law firms that had alleged violations of the Open Public Records Act from 2015 through 2016. In the two years prior, the administration paid another $441,000 for attorneys in OPRA cases, according to an Associated Press analysis also cited by the Record report.

"It does seem that under the Christie Administration the default position for much of the time was to look for a reason to deny a request rather than to err on the side of transparency, as it's contemplated under the statute," Ed Barocas, legal director for the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU, told the Record.

The most expensive case among those cited in the Record report cost the administration more than $101,000, and involved the Second Amendment Society seeking firearms regulations.

The Open Public Records Act, working in concert with federal law, common law and executive orders issued by governors, ensures public access to most government documents and communications — but makes certain exceptions. It outlines circumstances in which a government entity may withhold or redact documents — for instance, to protect individuals' privacy, or to safeguard criminal investigations.

When those requesting public records believe they've been improperly denied, they can challenge those denials through the state's Government Records Council or the courts. Challenges via the latter can result not only in records being released, but in the government agency paying all attorney fees.

“You’re either in this to have a transparent government, or you’re in this to fight it tooth and nail,” Bruce Rosen, an attorney who represents media organizations, told the Associated Press earlier this year. “I for one don’t know why they would fight any of this. It’s not their government, it’s our government.”

A spokesman for Christie told the AP at the time 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.

The Christie administration's battles over public records have made headlines before. Last year, it lost a court fight to withhold the governor's media contact list of about 2,500 journalists and other media contacts.

In 2015, New Jersey Watchdog released a copy of Gov. Chris Christie’s directory of media contacts, obtained by the site under a court order. It’s a list Christie fought hard to keep private, even though, according to the site, “it contained no real secrets, confidential information or anything likely to endanger anyone.”

The list was mostly what you’d expect from a New Jersey governor with a national presence. There are contacts for national news agencies such as the Associated Press, CBS and Bloomberg. Web-based publications like Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post show up. All of New Jersey’s major newspapers are represented. There are a number of contacts for specific Fox News programs and for several radio shows.

New Jersey was also ordered to pay for New Jersey Watchdog’s legal fees in that case.



More from New Jersey 101.5:

More From New Jersey 101.5 FM