Gov. Chris Christie is refusing to release nearly $800,000 in American Express credit card bills for the travel costs of his state police security details.
The governor’s office denied public records requests for AmEx monthly statements and related documents that would show how the money was spent. His staff said release of details on past charges would jeopardize the governor’s safety in the future.
In response, a New Jersey Watchdog reporter filed suit against Christie on Friday in Mercer County Superior Court. (Disclosure: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff in Lagerkvist v. Office of Governor, filed Friday in Mercer County Superior Court.)
Earlier this year, a New Jersey Watchdog investigation found the travel expenses of the Executive Protection Unit are 18 times higher than when Christie took office. Much of the increase is attributed to Christie’s frequent out-of-state trips as he pursues his political ambitions and a likely run for the White House.
The bills totaled almost $1 million during Christie’s first four years and nine months as governor. More than 80 percent were charged to AmEx cards used by the governor’s office, which later sought reimbursement from the state police.
Last year, Christie traveled outside New Jersey on more than 100 days while visiting 36 states, Mexico, and Canada.
Wherever the governor travels for whatever reason — even when funded by political organizations, supporters or friends like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones — he is accompanied by an EPU security detail at state expense.
State records previously obtained by New Jersey Watchdog show:
The documents show that Christie’s office billed the state police for “travel expenses” that included $129,272 for Blackberry smartphone service; $8,586 for rental of a copier; $1,505 for drinking water; $3,552 to repair a security camera at the gubernatorial mansion in Princeton; $9,335 for costs related to Christie’s trip to Israel in March 2012; and $13,650 for the governor’s trip to Mexico adventure in September 2014.
New Jersey Watchdog’s line-by-line analysis is available online.
What’s missing are AmEx records of how the remaining $793,007 was spent. Those charges presumably include hotels, transportation, meals, and other expenses.
The governor’s office contends that release of the statements would identify troopers who have been issued the charge cards. In response, the reporter agreed to allow the state to black out their names and replace them with initials or a numeric code. But Christie’s staff rejected that offer, claiming the reporter might be able to use the records to guess how many troopers are assigned to the EPU.
If that information is a state secret, it is one that’s poorly kept.
State Police Supt. Rick Fuentes revealed those numbers during his testimony at a public hearing in 2007. According to Fuentes, there were 29 troopers assigned to the EPU, with 19 of those officers assigned to the governor’s personal security detail. The superintendent said an additional five troopers were being added and assigned to the governor.
EPU travel expenses do not include the troopers’ overtime pay, data kept secret under a rule adopted by the Christie administration. Nor does it count the cost of state police vehicles and helicopters used to transport the governor and his entourage.
Records of the amount of overtime paid became state secrets through a 2011 regulation adopted by Paula T. Dow, Christie’s first attorney general. The rule assumes release of the information could jeopardize the safety of the governor and his protectors if revealed.
The reporter’s lawsuit is also seeking a copy of an extensive email list assembled by the governor’s staff.
Christie’s high-tech list of 2,500 reporters and TV producers is an integral part of a publicity machine created at taxpayers’ expense.
The governor’s media team has expanded to include 16 full-time staffers and a payroll of $1.36 million last year – a 50 percent increase in five years.
In a January press release recounting his accomplishments as governor, Christie boasted that he had generated 8,761,511 views on YouTube, 176,955 likes on Facebook and 6,810 tweets to 489,000 followers on Twitter.