“The delay was due to a work backlog in the Government Records Council,” said spokeswoman Lisa Ryan. She would not elaborate.
As a result, a 2-year-old appeal by New Jersey Watchdog returns to Square One. It now appears unlikely the case will decided – or documents released – until after the November gubernatorial election.
The circumstances raise doubt on whether GRC can be trusted with disputes over executive branch records. All members of the council are either Christie cabinet members or public members appointed by the governor. GRC’s executive director, Brandon Minde, is Christie’s former assistant legal counsel.
Ironically, Christie campaigned on a platform of reform and open government when he was elected governor in 2009.
Treasury officials gathered the documents during an inquiry of whether Guadagno’s chief officer, Michael W. Donovan Jr., improperly collected nearly $85,000 a year in state retirement pay in addition to his $87,500 annual salary.
In 2008, Guadagno hired Donovan, a retired investigator for the county prosecutor, as the sheriff’s “chief of law enforcement division.” She announced the appointment in a memo to her staff. The sheriff’s official website subsequently identified Donovan as “sheriff’s officer chief,” supervising 115 subordinate officers and 30 civilian employees.
But Donovan faced a legal problem. As a sheriff’s officer chief — a position covered by the pension system — Donovan should have been required to stop receiving pension checks, plus resume his contributions to the state retirement fund.
So Guadagno lied about Donovan’s job title, enabling her chief officer to double-dip.
In county payroll records, the oath of office and a news release, Donovan was listed as the sheriff’s “chief warrant officer” — a similar sounding, but low-ranking position that’s exempt from the pension system. A chief warrant officer is responsible for serving warrants and other legal documents.
While sheriff’s chief, Donovan pocketed $227,000 in checks from the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System. Since he did not re-enroll in PFRS, he avoided another $18,000 in contributions. If the state decides Donovan violated pension law, he could be forced to repay $245,000.
The stakes are also high for Guadagno. Under state statute, “Any person who shall knowingly make any false statement or shall falsify or permit to be falsified any record or records of this retirement system … shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”
The case was referred to the Attorney General’s Division of Criminal Justice. However, the DCJ investigation is riddled with potential conflicts of interest. Guadagno is DCJ’s former deputy director; she held the post from 1998 to 2001.
Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, a Christie appointee, is ultimately in charge of the probe of fellow cabinet member Guadagno. Chiesa is former chief legal counsel to Christie.
Christie has not publicly addressed the issue of whether an independent prosecutor should be appointed to handle the case. Spokespeople for Christie and Guadagno have declined to comment. Representatives for Chiesa have not responded to questions about the investigation.
“Because of the nature of the subject of this complaint, this complaint should be referred to the Office of Administrative Law…” according to a draft of the GRC staff recommendation released just before the Dec. 18 meeting.
But as soon as the meeting began, the council went into executive session to discuss the case in private – and change the wording of the resolution it would adopt.
When the public was invited to return, the reference to “the nature of the subject of this complaint” and its political inference had disappeared. The council claimed GRC did not have the resources or staff to finish the case it had been working on for a year-and-a-half.