Court reinstates Bridgegate records suit against Christie administration

TRENTON -- A state court on Thursday revived a public records fight against Gov. Chris Christie, finding members of his administration could be on the hook for civil penalties for withholding e-mails about the Bridgegate scandal from the media.

The three-judge appeals panel reinstated two lawsuits brought by North Jersey Media Group, which publishes The Record newspaper, alleging the Governor's Office engaged in a pattern and practice of hiding public documents in violation of state records law.

The news organization had filed a series of requests under New Jersey's Open Public Records Act for e-mails exchanged between members of the governor's staff and the Port Authority just a few weeks after the lane closures that would become a national scandal.

When the administration responded, however, the provided documents didn't include e-mails that reporters at the news organization knew existed.

"They knew it was inadequate because they had documents already from other sources," said Samuel Samaro, an attorney for the media group.

After more e-mails became public through the series of investigations that followed the scandal, the administration argued it had provided everything it had.

The appellate court on Thursday reversed a lower court ruling that the administration had adequately described its process for searching for responsive records. 

It also reversed the judge's ruling that she didn't have jurisdiction to impose civil penalties on members of the administration for violating OPRA. Under state law, a government worker who "knowingly and willfully" blocks access to public records faces fines starting at $1,000 for the first violation.

A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, which represented the state, declined to comment on the decision. A spokesman for the governor did not respond to a message seeking comment. 

Samaro, whose firm regularly takes on public records cases, said the ruling was significant because it makes government employees personally liable if a judge finds they deliberately denied access to public records.

"The point to it is not the thousand bucks they'll be assessed," he said. "We don't get it - the state does. The point to it is to dis-incentivizes individuals who engage in this behavior."

Samaro said the decision would also encourage judges to look more critically at claims from government agencies that they conducted an exhaustive search.

The appeals panel sent the case back to the trial judge for a final decision on whether penalties will be assessed.

 

 

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