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Criminal probe secrets center on Christie’s second-in-command

By   /   August 26, 2015 

The public’s right to know the outcome of a criminal probe of an alleged $245,000 pension fraud involving New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno will be debated next week in state appellate court.

New Jersey Watchdog is appealing a lower court’s decision not to release the findings of an investigation by the state attorney general’s Division of Criminal Justice. Oral arguments are scheduled to be heard next Wednesday at Rutgers Law School in Camden.

Guadagno frequently serves as acting governor when Chris Christie travels outside the state on presidential campaign trips. She is mentioned as a likely Republican candidate for governor in 2017 – and could take the reins even earlier if Christie steps down before his term expires.

The alleged fraud occurred when Guadagno was Monmouth County sheriff in 2008, the year before she first ran for lieutenant governor as Christie’s running mate.

Guadagno 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. The story included links to several smoking-gun documents, including an internal memo initialed by Guadagno.

In May 2011, DCJ began a criminal investigation at the request of a state pension board. But the probe was undermined by a major conflict of interest because Guadagno is a former DCJ deputy director. Christie did not use his constitutional power to appoint a special investigator or independent prosecutor.

RELATED: Conflicts plague year-old pension probe of Guadagno and $245K pension scam

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.

The investigative news site won a partial victory in the trial court last year when Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson ordered DCJ to reveal some of the documents.

However, 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.

RELATED: Christie ignores conflicts as Guadagno escapes charges in Doublegate case

The appeal seeks release of three documents:

  • A May 2011 letter from the board secretary of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System requesting the investigation.
  • A June 2012 five-page internal “memorandum regarding the status of DCJ’s investigation” from Deputy Attorney General Anthony Picione to Division Director Stephen Taylor, Corruption Bureau Chief Christine Hoffman and one other DCJ supervisor.
  • A one-page letter by Hoffman to the PFRS board secretary dated seven days later. It stated the investigation was closed, but did not reveal the result or findings of the probe.

RELATED: Secrets surface in NJ probe implicating Guadagno

In September 2014, New Jersey Watchdog appealed Jacobson’s decision to the State Appellate Division.

Lawyers for the state contend disclosure would undermine DCJ’s future ability to conduct corruption investigations. The investigative news site is arguing that the public has an overriding interest in knowing whether or not the probe itself may have been corrupted.

Appellate Division Judges George S. Leone and Carol E. Higbee will preside at the hearing. Judge Michael A. Guadagno, the lieutenant governor’s husband, is not assigned to the case.

RELATED: NJ Watchdog fights for Guadagno pension probe records in appeals court

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DISCLOSURE: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff-appellant in Lagerkvist vs. State of New Jersey, docket #A 004907-13T1, Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division.