Charles Ouslander, the Hunterdon County first assistant prosecutor who supervised theof Republican Sheriff Deborah Trout and two aides for official misconduct, yesterday asked the Legislature’s Select Committee on Investigation to expand its inquiry to include whether Gov. Chris Christie’s Attorney General, Paula Dow, was politically pressured by her boss to take over the prosecutor’s office and kill the indictment.
“As a former career county and state-level prosecutor with firsthand knowledge of the events in question, I again express my belief that the actions of the Attorney General were unlawful and, from my vantage point, obviously influenced by improper political considerations,” Ouslander wrote in a(D-Middlesex), the committee’s co-chair, that he emailed to the committee’s special counsel yesterday. “As such, it is of vital public importance that the Committee undertakes an exhaustive investigation into the conduct of the attorney general.”
For Christie and his inner circle, the allegations charging that the governor’s office brought pressure to kill the Hunterdon County indictments are as serious both criminally and politically as Bridgegate and Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s charge that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno threatened to withhold Sandy aid if she did not approve a high-rise development represented by a Christie insider’s law firm. The administration has been fighting to suppress the release of information on the case, which is the subject of a civil lawsuit that has been winding its way through the courts.
Lawyers for Christie’s Attorney General’s Office have filed 17 motions since August in an effort to overturn a Superior Court judge’s order requiring the release of the grand jury proceedings demanded by Bennett A. Barlyn, an assistant county prosecutor who has.
Barlyn was fired after he complained to Deputy State Attorney General Dermot O’Grady, whom Dow had sent in to run the Hunterdon County prosecutor’s office, that the August 7, 2010, decision to drop the case against Trout, an ally of Christie and Guadagno, without telling the Hunterdon prosecutors who had handled the case was “corrupt” and politically motivated.
The decision by Dow’s office to drop the case against Trout and two aides because of “legal and factual deficiencies” came exactly three months after the May 7, 2010, release of a Hunterdon County grand jury’s indictment of Trout, Undersheriff Michael Russo, and Sheriff’s Investigator John Falat Jr. on 43 criminal counts ranging from hiring sheriff’s officers without proper background checks to forcing employees to sign loyalty oaths and making a fake police badge for a prominent Christie campaign contributor. The grand jury had also issued a separate presentment identifying non-criminal malfeasance by other sheriff’s office employees.
The eventual squelching of the indictment did not come entirely as a surprise to Hunterdon prosecutors and investigators. After all, on the same day that the indictment was released, Dow not only dismissed Prosecutor J. Patrick Barnes, a Democratic holdover who had been serving for seven years, but also took control of the prosecutor’s office. She put Deputy Attorney General Dermot O’Grady in charge, announced that the Trout case would be handled by her office, and ordered all case files shipped to Trenton.
According to Barlyn, Barnes told colleagues that Dow told him he was being replaced because of the Trout case and that the decision was made by “people above” her; the only two people who outrank the attorney general in New Jersey state government are the governor and lieutenant governor. Further fueling Hunterdon prosecutors’ fears was Russo’s declaration that day to fellow staffers, reported in the Hunterdon Democrat, that Christie would “step in (and) have this whole thing thrown out.”
Barlyn and Ouslander said in interviews earlier this week that they hoped the ultimate release of the grand jury proceedings would prove that the legitimacy of their case against Trout and her aides.
But only a legislative committee armed with subpoena powers could demand the internal memos and other documents showing communications between the attorney general’s office and the governor’s office, and compel key people like Dow, O’Grady, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, and Robert Hariri, a prominent Christie donor and biomedical CEO named as a witness in court papers, to testify on why the case was killed in such an unusual way, they said.
The Joint Select Committee on Investigation has been given broad authority to investigate any abuses of power and their coverup by the Christie administration, and it has issued 37 subpoenas in the last month, extending its investigation this week beyond Bridgegate to focus on Christie’s cancellation of the ARC Tunnel, the 2011 Port Authority toll increase and Christie’s placement of patronage appointees at the bistate agency. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which has been focusing its efforts on the Zimmer allegations, also could choose to investigate the Hunterdon case if it is looking to establish a pattern of abuse of power for political purposes within the Christie administration.