On the national campaign trail, Gov. Chris Christie portrays himself as an outspoken champion of open, honest, transparent government.
Back in New Jersey, his administration is quietly stonewalling public records requests inin Mercer County Superior Court.
Those requests include records of out-of-state-trips Christie uses to raise his political profile as he eyes a run for the White House in 2016. In court, the state’s lawyers argue:
Christie and his staff are exempt from all New Jersey travel rules that govern state employees.
The governor’s office has no records of out-of-state travel for Christie and his staff paid by third-party organizations, a disclosure generally required of state officials.
Christie’s office does not have records of what each trip cost taxpayers. The same holds for the New Jersey State Police, which provides security for the governor as he travels across the country.
During the first 10 months of 2014,-- campaigning and fundraising for GOP candidates while promoting his image as a leader.
Christie raised $106 million in political contributions as chair of the Republican Governors Association. While the RGA typically takes care of his travel expenses, there is no disclosure of how much New Jersey paid for the state police protection details that travel with Christie.
The lack of disclosures contradicts promises Christie made when he first took office.
“Today, a new era of accountability and transparency is here,”. “Today, change has arrived.”
Travel records are a sensitive issue for Christie, who talks like a cost-cutter yet has a history as a high roller when someone else pays the bills for his first-class fares and four-star hotels.
As a U.S. Attorney, Christie was singled out by the Justice Department inspector general for violating federal travel regulations with excessive lodging expenses on two-thirds of his trips.
issued in November 2010 determined Christie was the biggest offender among the 208 individuals who served as U.S. Attorneys from 2007 to 2009.
“In terms of percentage of travel, U.S. Attorney C was the U.S. Attorney who most often exceeded the government rate without adequate justification,”. Shortly after its release, a spokesman for the governor acknowledged Christie was U.S. Attorney C.
The report cited Christie’s stays at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C., for $475 a night and Nine Zero Hotel in Boston for $449 a night. Each cost more than double the government-approved rate.
And rather than take a taxi in Boston between the hotel and airport four miles away, Christie arranged a car service at a cost of $236 for the round trip, the review found.
Christie declined the inspector general’s request for an interview to question him about his expenses, according to the report.
As governor, Christie’s penchant for expensive travel at taxpayers’ expense has continued.
For example, it cost New Jersey taxpayersto the 2013 Super Bowl in New Orleans, plus another . The governor’s room at the unidentified hotel cost $3,372, according to documents released in response to a lawsuit by The Record.
To avoid disclosures that could lead to further scrutiny or embarrassment, the governor’s advisers have created have a minefield of legal arguments designed to blow up most Open Public Records Act requests for his travel-related records: + The request is “unclear … and therefore invalid.”
The governor is exempt from state travel regulations.
The records do not exist. But if they do, the governor’s office doesn’t have them.
A New Jersey Watchdog reporter faced all three obstacles while seeking records of travel by Christie and his senior staff funded by third-party organizations rather than the state. (Editor’s note: Mark Lagerkvist is the reporter who filed this OPRA request on behalf of.)
New Jersey regulations require any third party that pays for the travel of state officials to disclose the details in writing on the organization’s letterhead. The state agency or office is required to retain those records under a rule detailed in.
In January, the reporter asked for “copies of all available documentation for out-of-state travel from 2012 to present by Gov. Chris Christie and/or members of his senior staff to attend or participate in third-party-funded events. This request specifically includes documentation of the payment arrangement on the third-party organization's letterhead …”also sought emails, correspondence, itineraries, and various other records regarding the trips.
The following month,.
“Please be advised that the nature of your request is unclear, and your request is therefore invalid under OPRA,” responded Javier Diaz, associate legal counsel to the governor.
, the reporter inquired why the governor’s office believed the request was unclear, but Diaz did not respond.
When the reporter challenged the denial in court, Christie’s lawyers were ready with a new story: The governor and his staff are exempt from all travel rules that govern state officials, including the disclosure of trips paid by third parties, they said.
As proof, they produced memos that previous state budget officials sent to former governorsand -- long before current regulations and Christie’s “new era of accountability and transparency.”
“Our position is that the regulations do not apply,” argued Assistant Attorney General Lewis Scheindlin, representing the governor in court.
in July. In her opinion, the request was technically deficient because it asked for too many records. to a higher state court.
Meanwhile, the governor’s office has again changed its story about third-party travel records. Christie’s staff now denies it possesses the type of documents that it fought disclosing.
“I understand that third parties did pay for some of the governor’s trips … however, our office has not been provided with any such documents,” wrote, last month in a response to the reporter’s revised OPRA request for records.
Chris Christie never travels alone -- no matter whether the trips are official or unofficial, political or personal.
Wherever he goes, Christie is accompanied by troopers assigned to the state police’s Executive Protection Unit, the crew in charge of the governor’s security
So how much do the trips cost taxpayers? Believe it or not, the governor’s office and state police say they don’t keep track.
The Record ran into that roadblock during another public-records conflict than began last year. The newspaper sued the state for documents that would show how much the state spent on each trip for the wages, overtime pay, and travel expenses of the troopers who travel with Christie.
“We undertook a review and did not identify any records responsive to your request,”filed with the court. Similar to an affidavit, a certification is a statement subject to legal penalties if it’s knowingly false.
State police officials also claimed they had no records detailing the cost of protecting Christie on his out-of-state travels.
“EPU-related expenses are not broken down by trip,” statedfor the same case. “EPU-related expenses are not broken down by categories such as transportation, lodging, meals, or entertainment.”
The state police also asserts it does not have records of where EPU troopers are assigned while they are on the public time clock. With overtime, the officers in the unit generally earn $140,000 a year or more.
“Wages and overtime are paid without reference to the type or location of work being conducted,” continued Schuster. “Specifically, the payment of wages and salary will not distinguish between work conducted within New Jersey and work conducted outside of New Jersey.”
The state and The Record are trying to negotiate a settlement in the case,. However, the newspaper is being told that most of the documents it wanted do not exist.
“We’re just trying to confirm there are no other records responsive to our request,” said Jennifer Borg, vice-president of North Jersey Media Group, which owns The Record.
There is one more argument the governor uses to avoid disclosure of travel records. His lawyers contend that identifying how the governor traveled and where he stayed on previous trips would put him in physical danger on future journeys.
That defense was tested in a second lawsuit by a New Jersey Watchdog reporter, this time seeking records of Christie's official, state-funded travels.
To support that argument, the governor’s attorneys submitted a. The statement was sealed by Judge Jacobson; the reporter’s attorney was not allowed to review it.
. The judge ruled that the names of Christie’s hotels should be withheld from disclosure because he may someday choose to stay at those locations again. But she also instructed the governor’s office to release detailed information about his air-travel arrangements -- and ordered the state to pay the reporter’s legal costs.
The controversies over the governor's travel records are far from over -- particularly if Christie announces his candidacy for president early next year, as widely expected. If that happens, the frequency of his trips will only increase, along with the amount of time he spends outside New Jersey. The bigger issue may be whether Christie continues a secretive strategy to keep travel expenses records from public view -- and how it could affect the image he has cultivated as a.
Disclosure: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff in Lagerkvist v. Office of Governor, MER-L-821-14 and Lagerkvist v. Office of Governor, MER-L-1504-14 -- both filed in Mercer County Superior Court.