After Bridgegate, state agencies wrongfully denied activist’s request for other requests made for public records
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) has sued the Christie administration for denying open records requests from a government transparency activist who sought records of requests others had made in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal.
For years, Harry Scheeler of Cape May County has been auditing local, county and state agencies to see if they are compliant with the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). Scheeler conducts his audits by requesting – and receiving – records of all OPRA requests submitted to various government agencies. He posts his findings on his website, http://www.harryscheeler.com/
This year, however, Scheeler received a much different response to a request that he and fellow activists, as well as journalists, consider routine. He requested copies of all records requests filed in relation to the George Washington Bridge from the Office of the Governor, as well as all records requests for particular periods from several state agencies. In a departure from previous years, the state agencies said they could not turn over these records, despite having turned over the same kinds of records in previous years, by incorrectly claiming they are exempt from OPRA.
“Keeping tabs on the records requests state agencies receive and how those agencies respond is a key tool for holding the government accountable, and one that good-government advocates use often,” said Scheeler, who lives in Woodbine Borough. “It raises alarms that the state has suddenly closed its doors to members of the public seeking this information, especially when it has fulfilled these requests fairly openly in the past. The public deserves to know how the government responds to OPRA requests.”
The lawsuit, filed May 5 (PDF), challenges the denial of records from the nine state agencies, including the Office of the Governor. Scheeler’s request to the governor’s office asked for a copy of “all OPRA requests submitted to this office in January 2014” and all “OPRA requests submitted to this office concerning the closure of the George Washington Bridge.” Scheeler also requested all OPRA requests made in the previous 90 days at various points from the Motor Vehicle Commission, Alcoholic Beverage Control, Military and Veterans Affairs, New Jersey Treasury, Department of Law and Public Safety, Department of Education and New Jersey State Police, all of which claimed the records were exempt from OPRA.
“One of the most audacious parts of this case is the state’s insistence that the public cannot view these records, even though these very same agencies provided the same types of records for the same member of the public year after year,” said attorney Bruce S. Rosen, a partner at McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen and Carvelli, P.C., who is arguing the case on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. “The biggest difference between the previous years’ requests and those made this year seems to be the political atmosphere. The law, as always, errs on the side of giving the public more access to the workings of government, and the state government must serve that mandate.” The lawsuit points out the baseless rationale used by executive agencies of New Jersey to deny Scheeler’s requests. The state argued, incorrectly, that OPRA affords confidentiality to third parties’ requests for records and that the denial is necessary to “prevent competition” among members of the public requesting records.
“Open government is a cornerstone of democracy and allows the public to assess the performance of government officials, whether president, governor, or mayor,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “The Christie administration’s blanket denial of legitimate requests for basic information on government activities raises serious concerns about the administration’s commitment to open government. The public has a right to basic information about how the government carries out its obligations. The actions taken by the Christie administration are particularly troubling given that the about-face on releasing the records requests appears to have coincided with the Bridgegate scandal.”
The case, filed in Mercer County Superior Court of New Jersey, is captioned Scheeler v. Office of the Governor, et. al.. Judge Mary C. Jacobson has scheduled a hearing for 11 a.m. on July 21, 2014.
- Scheeler: Complaint (PDF)