Suit over Christie's travel records heads to court next week

Christie and his entourage have traveled extensively over the past couple of years.

Gov. Chris Christie’s lawyers won’t be allowed to escape a court date next week in a lawsuit brought by a New Jersey Watchdog reporter over records of the governor’s travel paid by outside organizations.

Judge Mary C. Jacobson denied the state’s request Thursday to reschedule or consolidate the case with other public records actions against the governor pending in Mercer County Superior Court.

If granted, proceedings in the case could have been indefinitely derailed. Instead, it remains on course for a Tuesday hearing.

The dispute centers on disclosures by third-party organizations that pay for out-of-state trips by Christie and his senior staff. State agencies are required to collect and keep documentation of who’s paying on the third-party’s letterhead, under rules detailed in Treasury Circular 12-14-OMB.

Christie is en route to becoming the most prolific traveler in the history of New Jersey governors.

“I’ve been in 19 states now in the last four months or so,” he boasted during an appearance on CNBC earlier this month.

As he ponders a run for the White House in 2016 and travels across the country as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie is trying to avoid public disclosure on who pays for which trips.

At first, the governor’s office completely denied the reporter’s request for the files, claiming it was “unclear … and therefore invalid” under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act.

Now, Christie’s lawyers are arguing he is exempt from travel regulations, relying on a 1979 memo to former Gov. Brendan Byrne from a budget director.

Because of that 35-year-old letter, which far predates modern rules, the requirement for disclosure “does not apply to the governor’s office,” argued Deputy Attorney General Todd Wigder in a brief to the court.

“If the governor’s office — of a governor with a national profile that has had designs on higher office — keeps no records of who pays him to attend an event within the past two years, there are going to be far larger problems than an OPRA lawsuit,” replied the reporter’s attorney, Donald M. Doherty.

The New Jersey Watchdog reporter has a second lawsuit against Christie’s office for records of the governor’s travel funded by taxpayers.  That case is scheduled to be heard by Jacobson on Sept. 19.

This week, Widgder asked the judge to combine the two cases along with an unrelated public records action brought by libertarian activist John Paff. After Doherty objected on the reporter’s behalf, Jacobson rejected the state’s request for “good cause” in a brief order.

DISCLOSURE: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff in Lagerkvist v. Office of Governor, MER-L-821-14 and Lagerkvist v. Office of Governor, MER-L-1504-14 – both filed in Mercer County Superior Court.

The New Jersey Watchdog is a public interest journalism project dedicated to promoting open, transparent, and accountable state government by reporting on the activities of agencies, bureaucracies, and politicians in New Jersey. It is funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a libertarian nonprofit organization.