Lawsuit Also Names A.G’s Public Records Custodian; Asks Judge to Review Lack of Response to OPRA Request Regarding Dismissed Indictment & Firing of Assistant Prosecutor
(TRENTON) – Assembly Judiciary Chairman John McKeon on Friday announced he has filed a lawsuit against Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino and the attorney general’s public records custodian seeking access to documents related to the 2010 firing of a former assistant Hunterdon County prosecutor who alleged an indictment against the then-Hunterdon County sheriff was dismissed for political reasons.
The lawsuit comes after Porrino’s office was unresponsive to McKeon’s Open Public Records Act request for the documents, including communications between the Christie administration with then-Hunterdon County Sheriff Deborah Trout, who was among those charged in a 2010 indictment alleging official misconduct and falsification of documents. Then-Attorney General Paula Dow later quashed the indictment, deeming it legally and factually deficient.
The former assistant Hunterdon prosecutor, Bennett Barlyn, claims he was fired for complaining to a superior that the case was dropped for political reasons.
McKeon in March asked the state Attorney General’s Office to waive confidentiality and release documents related to a $1.5 million settlement Barlyn reached with the state as part of a whistleblower lawsuit. Barlyn agreed to do so, but McKeon said the state’s response was unsatisfactory, leading to an August Open Public Records Act request. Besides the $1.5 million settlement, the state spent $4 million in legal fees on the case.
“The Attorney General’s Office has continued to withhold production of any and all documents that are in any way responsive to my request,” said McKeon (D-Essex/Morris). “This lawsuit is an unfortunate but necessary step. New Jersey cannot have an Attorney General’s Office that is unresponsive to the public. The public interest in obtaining the requested documents substantially outweighs any interest in continued secrecy.”
The dispute arises from McKeon’s request for documents pertaining to the Attorney General’s office involvement in 2010 of the dismissal of indictments brought against Trout and two sheriff’s department employees, Michael Russo and John Falat. The indictments, though, were withdrawn by Dow, and Barlyn was fired. Barlyn later brought a whistleblower lawsuit in which he alleged that he was fired because of statements he made at the time regarding the role of political supporters of Gov. Christie in Dow’s decision to withdraw the indictments.
Barlyn’s lawsuit later settled for $1.5 million. Many of the terms of the settlement remain confidential.
“The Attorney General’s 2010 supersession of the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office, the subsequent withdrawal of the Trout indictments and the later settlement of the Barlyn litigation raise important questions of public concern and public policy,” the lawsuit states. “These matters also are of vital concern to the Legislature and to the Assemblyman in his capacity as Chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee.”
McKeon contends Porrino and the Attorney General’s office public records custodian, Bruce J. Solomon, violated the Open Public Records Act. McKeon also claims a common law right of access to the documents.
“In light of the OAG’s intransigent position and its denial of the Assemblyman’s OPRA request, the Assemblyman presently seeks this Court’s review of the OAG’s denial,” the lawsuit states.
· Copies of all of the responsive documents sought in his August 30 OPRA request;
· An award of costs of this action and reasonable attorney’s fees; and
· Such other, further and different relief as the Court may deem equitable and just.