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Ex-Prosecutor Urges Legislative Probe In Hunterdon Sheriff’s Case

In his letters to Wisniewski and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the committee’s cochairs, Ouslander notes that he has “gone on record to corroborate the allegations of official misconduct against the New Jersey Attorney General relating to the handling of the criminal case against Sheriff Debra Trout made by two former colleagues: Bennett Barlyn and William McGovern,” a Republican assistant prosecutor who also protested Dow’s decision to kill the Trout case.

Ouslander, now a law guardian for the Office of the Public Defender and a Hopewell Township municipal court judge, volunteered to cooperate with any investigation into the “abuse of law enforcement powers exercised by the New Jersey Attorney’s Office when it superseded the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office in 2010” and its “unprecedented dismissal of the 43-count indictment.”

Ouslander said in an interview Wednesday that Dow’s decision to take over the prosecutor’s office in May 2010 in order to kill the indictment made no sense to him because he, McGovern, Hunterdon County Prosecutor J. Patrick Barnes, and Chief of Detectives Dan Hurley drove to Trenton to meet personally with Dow and First Assistant Attorney General Philip Kwon the week after Christie’s inauguration in January 2010 and offered to turn over the case to the attorney general’s office.

“We said you should take this over because we work side by side with the sheriff’s office,” Ouslander recalled. “They said, no, you take it. Philip Kwon, who served in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, with Christie said it was a legitimate indictment, and that this guy (Undersheriff Russo) shouldn’t be in law enforcement. Once they gave us the green light, we went ahead. It was probably the cleanest presentation of a grand jury indictment I’ve ever seen, and the grand jury obviously agreed.”

That was before Dow took over the prosecutor’s office, however, and before her designee, Deputy Attorney General Christine Hoffman, went into court and announced that Dow’s office had decided to drop all charges. Following the dismissal, Trout, Russo, and Falat filed a $10 million lawsuit of their own in federal court, charging the Republican freeholder board, the county counsel, and a slew of county prosecutors for wrongful arrest, malicious prosecution, and damage to their reputations.

An Out-of-the-Ordinary Decision

Dow’s unusual decision to take over the prosecutor’s office has been the subject of considerable discussion in the legal community, said Robert Del Tufo, a former U.S. Attorney and state Attorney General. Del Tufo said he found the Hunterdon case troubling. He said “taking over a county prosecutor’s office requires the consent of the governor,” and that Dow’s action was a highly unusual step.

“I can only remember two other times over 50 years -- one in Bergen County where the prosecutor was corrupt and another down south – where the state took such a step,” Del Tufo said. “It was also unnecessary. If somebody wanted to get rid of that indictment because it was against a sheriff who was a Christie supporter, the attorney general could have taken the case to Trenton and taken steps to convince an assignment judge to dismiss it. But booting the prosecutor aside and dismissing his assistants seems to be going overboard.”

Barlyn, who was fired after protesting the dismissal of the case, won an important victory in August when a Superior Court judge hearing his wrongful termination lawsuit ordered the release of grand jury documents in the Trout case. But the Christie administration appealed, leading to a January 28 hearing before a three-judge appeals court panel, which is likely to issue its decision in the spring. Either way, an appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely, which means it will be months before the grand jury papers are released, unless, of course, they are subpoenaed by the Wisniewski-Weinberg committee.

“What I really would like to know is who was behind the decision by Attorney-General Paula Dow to take over the prosecutor’s office and kill what prosecutors and grand jurors have said was a proper indictment,” said Barlyn, a former state and county prosecutor with a sterling reputation who coauthored a revision of the state sentencing code, but is now teaching middle school.

Barlyn and Ouslander theorized that Hariri, the Celgene Cellular Therapeutics executive and prominent Christie donor who was named in the indictment as a witness for receiving a phony law enforcement identification, and/or Guadagno, who as Monmouth County sheriff was friendly with Trout before she ran for lieutenant governor, most likely pressured Christie and Dow to suppress the Trout case. “You have to connect the dots,” Barlyn said. He noted that Guadagno thanked Trout, who put together a group of county law enforcement officers to work for the Christie-Guadagno ticket, for her help in an email two nights after the election: “Saw a lot of your staff on the trail – thank you for giving them to us!”

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