The travel costs of the governor’s security detail soared last year with Chris Christie’s presidential ambitions, but details of how the taxpayers’ money was spent remain a state secret.
Of the nearly $614,000 spent on travel in 2015 by the NJ State Police state police Executive Protection Unit, $545,000 was charged to American Express cards issued to the governor’s office. Citing concerns for Christie’s safety, the state has refused to release the AmEx statements that list food, lodging, transportation, and incidental expenses for out-of-state trips.
Overall, EPU expenses totaled nearly $1.77 million for Christie’s first six years as New Jersey governor. More than 85 percent — or $1.52 million — was charged to state AmEx accounts, effectively exempt from outside scrutiny.
Also not publicly known is the cost of overtime pay for state troopers who accompany the governor on his sojourns. State police overtime records became confidential under a 2011 regulation adopted by the Christie administration.
An NJ Spotlight analysis of internal administration documents, obtained through Open Public Records Act requests, illustrates how the EPU travel costs increased year by year as Christie pursued his political fortunes outside of New Jersey:
The EPU travel expenses for 2015 are 28 times higher than the $21,704 spent in 2009, former Gov. Jon Corzine’s final year in office.
It is unknown whether security travel expenses will decrease during Christie’s final two years as governor. After he dropped out of the presidential race, Christie endorsed GOP frontrunner Donald Trump and has started making campaign appearances across the country on his behalf. Travel may also help Christie keep a prominent national profile as he looks for a new job.
The governor recently told reporters the state will continue paying for his security details, regardless of the travel purpose. “You want to change that, run for office and change that,” said Christie.
Another unanswered question is why $1.52 million in EPU credit card charges to the state should be kept confidential
Last August, Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson dismissed a public records lawsuit seeking the AmEx statements. She ruled that details of past expenses including names of hotels and restaurants could create a future security risk for Christie. The judge noted that the charges were “almost entirely” for out-of-state trips. (Disclosure: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist was the plaintiff in Lagerkvist vs. Office of Governor, Mercer County Superior Court, MER-L-463-15.)
Jacobson based her decision on a confidential sworn statement provided by Capt. Kevin Cowan, head of the EPU. “He unequivocally swears in that certification that release of the information would increase the risk of harm to the governor,” she said.
Yet a few months later, the governor’s campaign committee — Chris Christie for President Inc. — revealed many of those travel secrets in its quarterly report to the Federal Election Commission, a record publicly available online.
The campaign disclosed 34 hotels and 32 restaurants where the Christie entourage lodged and dined during the third quarter of 2015. It is precisely the type of information the governor’s office had asked the judge not to release.
The result is a paradox: The hotels, restaurants and airlines patronized by Christie and his campaign staff with private money from political contributions are a matter of public record. Yet details of the public cost for security during Christie’s White House run are kept secret by court order.
New Jersey voters overwhelmingly oppose Christie’s practice of sticking taxpayers with the travel bills of the state police escorts who follow him on the political trail, according to a Monmouth University poll last year.
Only 1 one percent of the voters polled thought the state should pay, while 82 percent said Christie’s campaign should take responsibility for the out-of-state security costs.