Appeals court orders release of NJ corruption probe records

By Mark Lagerkvist  /   November 12, 2015

NUMBER TWO: New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno frequently serves as acting governor when Chris Christie is away campaigning for president


A New Jersey appeals court has ruled the state must release two confidential state records from a corruption probe involving Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno to New Jersey Watchdog.

The opinion released Thursday by the Appellate Division reverses a trial court decision by Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson last year not to release those records from a state Division of Criminal Justice investigation of alleged pension fraud.

In a 14-page opinion, Justices George S. Leone and Carol E. Higbee rejected Jacobson’s reasons for blocking release of the documents to the investigative news site as an “abuse of discretion.”

“We cannot agree that the fact the investigation concerned possible sensitive issues of public corruption weighs against disclosure,” the ruling stated. “In cases involving allegations of public corruption, transparency and the public’s right to know are particularly important.”

As New Jersey’s second-in-command, Guadagno frequently serves as acting governor when Chris Christie travels outside the state on presidential campaign trips. She is mentioned as a likely Republican candidate for governor in 2017 — and could take the reins earlier if Christie steps down before his term expires.

The alleged $245,000 fraud occurred when Guadagno was Monmouth County sheriff in 2008, the year before she first ran for lieutenant governor as Christie’s running mate.

Guadagno made false and conflicting statements that enabled her chief officer, Michael Donovan, to improperly collect an $85,000-a-year pension in addition to his $87,500 salary, as first reported by New Jersey Watchdog in 2010. The story included links to smoking-gun documents, including an internal memo initialed by Guadagno.

In 2011, DCJ began an investigation at the request of a state pension board, but the probe was riddled by a major conflict of interest since Guadagno is a former DCJ deputy director. Christie did not use his constitutional power to appoint a special investigator or independent prosecutor.

Stonewalled by DCJ and the governor’s office for nearly two years, New Jersey Watchdog sued the state in Mercer County Superior Court for records of the investigation.

The news site won a partial victory in the trial court last year when Jacobson ordered DCJ to reveal some of the documents.

However, Jacobson also ruled DCJ was allowed to keep the findings of the investigation secret. After reviewing the documents in private, the judge determined the state’s interest in keeping the records confidential outweighed the public’s right to know.

In September 2014, New Jersey Watchdog appealed Jacobson’s decision to the higher court. In Thursday’s decision, the appellate judges ruled in the news site’s favor for two of three contested documents.

The state will be required to release:

  • A May 2011 letter from the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System requesting the investigation by DCJ.
  • A one-page correspondence by DCJ Corruption Bureau Chief Christine Hoffman to PFRS in June 2012. According to sources, the letter stated the investigation had been closed.

The judges stayed release of the two documents for 45 days, remanding the case to Jacobson for disposition.

New Jersey Watchdog lost the battle for a third confidential record: a June 2012 five-page internal memo on the status of the investigation from Deputy Attorney General Anthony Picione to Division Director Stephen Taylor, Hoffman and one other DCJ supervisor.

The appellate panel agreed with Jacobson in its conclusion that “the memo contained numerous deliberative statements and legal conclusions” that are privileged and protected from disclosure under state law.

# # #

DISCLOSURE: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff-appellant in Lagerkvist vs. State of New Jersey, docket #A 004907-13T1, Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division.

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment