The Magic of Power: Gov. Chris Christie’s Transparency Disappears

Mark Lagerkvist | October 1, 2015 | Politics
The case of the incredible shrinking media directory continues to wend its way through the courts

Gov. Chris Christie
Gov. Chris Christie and the case of a public record that mysteriously shrunk in half are returning to Superior Court.
Last month, the court ordered the governor’s office to release its “secret” directory of media contacts and VIPs, assembled at taxpayers’ expense.

But what Christie’s staff gave New Jersey Watchdog last week contained only half of the information described in court papers. Instead of 2,500 names, the list has only 1,229 entries.

Judge Mary C. Jacobson will hear arguments next week on whether or not the record was altered before its release, a possible violation of the court’s order. (Disclosure: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff in Lagerkvist v. Office of the Governor, MER-L-463-15, Mercer County Superior Court.)

It is another chapter in the governor’s contentious battle to keep confidential key information from a publicity machine that turned Christie into a national figure and set the stage for his White House run.

The list was created by the Christie’s communications staff 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 television appearances, plus 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.

At the center of the latest dispute is a certification by Matt Katz of WNYC/NJPR. Katz was allowed to review but not copy the list at the governor’s office last year, as part of a settlement in a public records lawsuit by New York Public Radio.
Katz reported that the list contained roughly 2,500 names. In viewing the record released to New Jersey Watchdog, he found “substantial differences” between it and what the governor’s staff had allowed him to inspect. In his statement to the court, Katz gave specific examples of information conspicuously missing from the list, including:

  • categories of contacts, such as national columnists, Sunday shows and Spanish language media;
  • contacts for The Daily Show, Drudge Report, Upworthy, and American Rising;
  • personal email addresses for the First Lady, then-Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, cabinet members, and other politicos.
  • New Jersey Watchdog first asked Christie for a copy of the list in January. The governor’s office denied the request as being “unclear” — even after the investigative news site identified the record as the same one shown to Katz. The conflict led to a suit filed in Mercer County Superior Court.
    In May, Jacobson ordered the governor to release the record, ruling the request had been improperly denied. The state countered with a motion for reconsideration, arguing the list was a “valuable asset” that would give New Jersey Watchdog an “unfair competitive advantage” over other media outlets.

    Jacobson ruled against the governor again in August – and she subsequently denied the state’s request to withhold release pending appeal.

    “The most disturbing part of it to me is that it contradicts the spirit of the Open Public Records Act,” said Jacobson during the August hearing. “The whole bias of OPRA is to provide documents and cooperate with requesters.”

    Last month, the governor’s office finally released a list with 1,229 names, but it’s roughly half the size of the one Katz said he viewed.

    Ironically, when Christie first took office as New Jersey governor in 2010, he promoted himself as an advocate of open, transparent government. Yet at one point last year, his administration was a defendant in nearly two dozen pending OPRA lawsuits filed in Mercer County Superior Court.

    A version of this story has been posted to the New Jersey Watchdog website.