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COMMENTARY: Christie promises to ‘tell it like it is,’ but hides truth in New Jersey


By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog

Chris Christie declared his candidacy for president Tuesday, promising America that he would “tell it like it is.” But his track record in New Jersey shows the governor has often gone to great lengths to hide the truth from taxpayers.

“We are going to tell it like it is,” Christie proclaimed in a gymnasium packed with supporters at Livingston High School. “The truth will set us free.”

In contrast, the governor has often forced New Jersey Watchdog and other news outlets to go to court to win release of public records the governor and his administration have refused to disclose.

Even now, Judge Mary C. Jacobson is deciding whether to order Christie to turn over nearly $1 million in American Express bills racked up the governor’s state police security team.  Christie’s office argues that records of those past expenses would reveal secrets that could put the governor at risk in the future.

“I’m not convinced it is essential to the governor’s security to withhold details,” Jacobson said during a hearing last month in Mercer County Superior Court.

Christie is also fighting the judge’s order to turn over a copy of a high-tech media list that his office assembled at taxpayers’ expense. The list is an integral cog in a publicly funded publicity machine that launched him into the national spotlight and toward a probable run for the White House in 2016.

The Christie administration’s biggest secret may be its failure to fully investigate or pursue allegations of a $245,000 pension fraud that implicated Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. That controversy began when Guadagno was Monmouth County sheriff in 2008, the year before she first ran for lieutenant governor as Christie’s running mate.

As sheriff, Guadagno allegedly made false and conflicting statements that enabled her chief officer, Michael Donovan, to improperly collect an $85,000 annual pension in addition to his $87,500 salary, as first reported by New Jersey Watchdog in 2010.

In May 2011, the attorney general’s Division of Criminal Justice began a criminal investigation at the request of a state pension board. But the probe was hobbled by a major conflict of interest: Though Guadagno is a former deputy director of DCJ, Christie did not use his constitutional power to appoint a special investigator or independent prosecutor.

Stonewalled by DCJ and the governor’s office for nearly two years, New Jersey Watchdog sued the state in 2013 for records of the investigation and its outcome.

The investigative news site won a partial victory in the trial court last year when Jacobson ordered DCJ to reveal some of the information it sought.

The disclosures showed that DCJ only generated six pages of investigative records before closing the case in June 2012.  The probe appeared to be virtually nonexistent. There were no records of interviews or statements from Guadagno or witnesses.

But Jacobson also ruled DCJ was allowed to keep the findings of the investigation secret. After reviewing the documents in private, the judge determined the state’s interest in keeping the records confidential outweighed the public’s right to know.

New Jersey Watchdog appealed Jacobson’s decision to the State Appellate Division. A date for oral arguments has yet to be scheduled.

Other news organizations have had court battles over public records with the Christie administration. At one point last year, Christie’s administration was a defendant in roughly two dozen public records lawsuits in Mercer County Superior Court.

Meanwhile, after announcing his White House run on Tuesday, Christie travelled to New Hampshire for five days of campaign events. His schedule includes a “Telling it Like it Is” town-hall meeting.

“I mean what I say and I say what I mean – and that’s what America needs right now,” said Christie.