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Assembly Panel Moves on McKeon, Quijano, Benson, Houghtaling, Downey & Zwicker Bill Barring Public Agencies from Settling Whistleblower Suits Confidentially

Bill Stems from Christie Administration’s Secret $1.5M Corruption Allegation Settlement that Cost the State an Additional $4M in Legal Fees

(TRENTON) – An Assembly panel approved legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats John McKeon, Annette Quijano, Daniel Benson, Eric Houghtaling, Joann Downey and Andrew Zwicker that would bar public entities from entering into confidential settlements of whistleblower lawsuits with public employees and mandate that such settlements are part of open public records.

McKeon first introduced the bill last session in response to the settlement reached with former Hunterdon County Assistant Prosecutor Bennett Barlyn, who testified extensively on the bill during a hearing this week before McKeon’s Judiciary Committee. Barlyn filed a lawsuit against the state in 2012 alleging he had been fired in 2010 after complaining to a superior that an indictment brought by the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office had been dismissed by then Attorney General Paula Dow for political reasons.

In October 2016, it was reported that the lawsuit was settled for $1.3 million in August and that the state spent almost $4 million on additional legal fees. Under terms of the settlement, the state denied any wrongdoing or liability in the matter.

“Based on the testimony we heard from Mr. Barlyn last session, Bridgegate would appear to be child’s play,” said McKeon (D-Essex/Morris). “Settlements of such a serious nature should not be locked away in the dark. The public deserves to know whether their government is operating with their best interests in mind or making costly, self-serving decisions. It’s disturbing that someone who uses the whistleblower law to truthfully speak out against wrongdoing can then be stifled when the matter is resolved. The public has a right to know how their money is spent, as well as all the facts about any allegations, which in this case were very concerning.”

Specifically, the bill (A-1229) would bar public entities and public employees from entering into any agreement to settle a claim or action when the public employee asserts the protections of the “Conscientious Employee Protection Act,” informally known as the “Whistleblower Statute,” if the agreement:

1) provides that the terms or conditions of the settlement are confidential; or

2) if the purpose or effect of the agreement is to conceal information relating to any claim or action against a public entity concerning the public interest. The bill would provide for an exception for matters involving national security.

“This incident represents government at its worst,” said Quijano (D-Union). “Taxpayers deserve much more than that. They deserve to know their tax dollars are not being squandered to cover up potential government misconduct.”
“Confidential settlements of this nature effectively eliminate government accountability,” said Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex). “Furthermore, they lead to the abuse of taxpayer dollars. This is unacceptable and contrary to everything expected of good government.”
In addition, the bill would require the Attorney General to make publicly available on their website a list of all settlements entered into by the state which would include, for each settlement agreement listed:
? The date on which the parties entered into the settlement agreement;

? The names of the parties that settled claims under the settlement agreement;

? A description of the claims each party settled under the settlement agreement;

? The amount each party settling a claim under the settlement agreement is obligated to pay under the settlement agreement; and

? The amount of outside counsel fees, if any, paid by the State in connection with the claim.

“It’s unacceptable that the state would readily waste over a million dollars in taxpayer money, then seal the terms of the settlement to avoid answering to allegations of corruption,” said Houghtaling (D-Monmouth). “This bill will put an end to that.”

“It’s unfortunate that taxpayers have to foot the bill for this alleged misconduct, but they have the right to know that this reckless abuse of their money will not be tolerated again,”,” said Downey (D-Monmouth). “This bill effectively says: no more.”

“Protecting the principles of transparency and accountability is essential to good governance and that is what this bill aims to do,” said Zwicker (D-Somerset, Mercer, Middlesex and Hunterdon). “It is wrong and unethical to use millions of dollars of taxpayer money to cover up negligence or stifling allegations of misconduct with a “confidential” settlement agreement. This bill makes it clear that in New Jersey this is unacceptable.”

Finally, the bill would provide that such settlement agreements constitute public records under the open public records laws.

The measure was approved by the Assembly State and Local Committee; it will now be considered for a vote by the full Assembly.