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 in roughly two dozen cases filed by numerous plaintiffs in 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:
During the first 10 months of 2014, the governor spent more than 100 days visiting 36 states — 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,” said Christie in his 2010 inauguration speech. “Today, change has arrived.”
Spare No Expense
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.
The inspector general’s review 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,” stated the review. 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 taxpayers $8,146 to fly Christie, his wife, and two aides to the 2013 Super Bowl in New Orleans, plus another $7,583 for three hotel rooms. 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:
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 Watchdog.)
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 Treasury Circular 12-14-OMB.
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 …” The OPRA request also sought emails, correspondence, itineraries, and various other records regarding the trips.
The following month, the governor’s office denied the request in its entirety.
“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.
In an email, 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 governors Brendan Byrne in 1979 and Christine Todd Whitman in 2000 — 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.
Judge Mary C. Jacobson dismissed the suit in July. In her opinion, the request was technically deficient because it asked for too many records. The reporter is appealing the judge’s decision 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 Christie’s chief ethics officer, Heather Taylor, last month in a response to the reporter’s revised OPRA request for records.
Who Protects NJ Taxpayers?
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,” stated Edward Nurick of the governor’s office in a certification 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,” stated Capt. Sherri Schuster in a certification for 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, according to court filings. 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 confidential certification by State Police Capt. Kevin M. Cowan. The statement was sealed by Judge Jacobson; the reporter’s attorney was not allowed to review it.
Last month, Jacobson reached a split decision. 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 reformer who campaigns as an advocate of open and transparent government.
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.