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Judge Orders Christie to Release 'Valuable Asset' -- List of Media Contacts

Superior Court rules that governor must turn over heretofore secret information to New Jersey Watchdog

Gov. Chris Christie

Gov. Chris Christie has lost another court battle in his attempt to keep secret a key cog in his taxpayer-funded publicity machine.

Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson denied the New Jersey governor’s plea for a stay pending a possible appeal of her order to release a copy of a strategic list of 2,500 media contacts to New Jersey Watchdog.

In an eight-page decision, Jacobson concluded it is “unlikely (the governor’s office) will succeed on the merits of the case.”

As a result, Christie has until September 16 -- coincidentally, the date of the Republican presidential debate on CNN -- to convince a state appellate court to grant emergent relief on the premise that release of the record would cause “irreparable harm” to the state.

The list was created by the governor’s communications staff, which consists of 16 full-time state employees paid $1.36 million in salaries last year, New Jersey Watchdog found. It helped the governor score countless national TV appearances, not to mention 8,761,511 views on YouTube, 176,955 likes on Facebook, and 6,810 tweets to 489,000 followers on Twitter during his first five years in office.

It was an integral part of a media campaign to turn Christie into a national figure and set the stage for his White House run. The governor’s office has refused comment on whether it shared the list with Christie’s presidential campaign. Probably more revealing than the list is how far a governor, who once championed transparency in government, has gone to avoid disclosure of a public record that his press secretary, Kevin Roberts, calls a “valuable asset.”

New Jersey Watchdog first asked for the list in January through an Open Public Records Act request. The governor’s office dismissed the request as being “unclear.” Despite clarifications and specifics offered by the investigative web site, Christie’s staff refused to release the document.

The dispute continued in Mercer County Superior Court, where the governor’s office argued the OPRA request was technically deficient and invalid. (Disclosure: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff in Lagerkvist v. Office of the Governor, MER-L-463-15, Mercer County Superior Court.)

Ruling against the state in a May decision, Jacobson ordered in Christie to turn over the record. Instead, the state filed a motion for reconsideration. This time, the governor argued the media list was akin to a “trade secret” and that release of the document would give New Jersey Watchdog an “unfair competitive advantage” over other news organizations.

Last month, Jacobson rejected the new arguments and again instructed Christie to produce the document. The state responded with a request for a stay pending appeal, which the judge turned down last week.

“The court simply cannot find irreparable harm if a stay is not granted because the information sought to be disclosed is not confidential … and the argument asserting competitive advantage is strained and ultimately unpersuasive to this court,” wrote Jacobson.

She was critical of the state’s attempt to improperly reargue a case that had already been decided.

“Defendants were trying to get a second bite of the apple, which is particularly disturbing because requestors in OPRA cases must make a decision whether to file litigation based on the reasons for nondisclosure provided by the custodian. If the state changes or adds arguments after the litigation has been filed, then it may have prompted needless litigation,” the judge concluded.

Jacobson has ordered the governor's office to pay for New Jersey Watchdog's attorney fees. If Christie pursues an appeal, the state's legal expenses are likely to increase.

Another version of this story is available online on the New Jersey Watchdog website.

New Jersey Watchdog is a public-interest journalism project dedicated to promoting open, transparent, and accountable state government by reporting on the activities of agencies, bureaucracies, and politicians in New Jersey. It is funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a nonprofit organization.

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