Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

New Jersey judge says state wrongly denied records

TRENTON - A New Jersey judge ruled Monday that Gov. Christie's administration must honor an activist's public records requests for requests filed by others.

The decision from Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson finds fault with the state's recent strategy of denying such requests on the ground that people who ask for government records have a privacy right. A state government lawyer said that people can use government records requests to explore lawsuits or dig up dirt on political opponents - matters Jacobson said need not be confidential.

"I can't see any expectation of privacy, whether you're attorney or not, or a newspaper person who's trying to get a scoop or not," Jacobson said in her ruling from the bench.

She also pointed out that many of the state government's own forms for requesting public records include a notice that the request itself is considered a public record.

Jacobson gave New Jersey until Aug. 15 to comply with a series of requests from Ed Scheeler. The state must also pay his legal bills in his quest for the documents. The state Attorney General's Office has not said whether it will appeal.

This year, Scheeler made a request of the sort that some investigative reporters and government watchdogs routinely make of the governor's office. He asked for all the open records requests made to the governor's office in January. He also asked for requests made regarding closures of lanes last year near the George Washington Bridge, as well as any documents the office provided in response. Both were denied.

Scheeler, a former photojournalist who is out on disability because of complications from diabetes, asked seven state agencies for requests they had received. All were denied using language similar to the governor's office's.

Scheeler, a registered Republican, sued with legal help from the New Jersey branch of the ACLU. Lawyers working for the ACLU gave Jacobson examples of Christie's office's fulfilling request for details of open records requests before the lane closures mushroomed into a major distraction for Christie, a possible 2016 presidential candidate.

Scheeler's lawyers also noted that the federal government makes Freedom of Information Act requests public on a website.

Scheeler, 35, has been requesting government documents since he was a teenager in the early 1990s and noticed police officers with cellphones, which at that time were expensive and not common. He made requests and discovered officers were making personal calls on the taxpayers' dime.

With the advent of electronic records he could get without paying for it, he has become a regular information requester.

Scheeler, of Woodbine, said he had made well over 1,000 requests for information, many to track how well agencies respond.

Scheeler said Monday that if he gets the information he asked for, he will use it to duplicate others' requests that he believe adhere to state law. And he said if he is denied, he will sue again to fight what he sees is a pattern of problems with how the state's Open Public Records Act is carried out.

"They don't want the public to know how horribly they comply with OPRA," Scheeler said. "It's pretty bad."

Geoff Mulvihill Associated Press
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