December 2, 2013

Don't you just love it when courts rule in favor of the public's right to know?


A New Jersey court may force Gov. Chris Christie’s administration to reveal information about a hush-hush state pension probe involving Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and a quarter-million dollar double-dipping scheme.

Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson ordered the attorney general’s Division of Criminal Justice to submit an index of its investigatory records for release to a New Jersey Watchdog reporter.

The stakes are high for Christie, who eyes a 2016 presidential campaign, and Guadagno, who could become governor if her boss quits to run for the White House.

Jacobson’s decision was a stunning setback for the state, which sought an order entirely dismissing the reporter’s public records lawsuit.  The attorney general argued that all of its 770-plus pages of records should be exempt from disclosure.

Instead, the judge will require DCJ to argue its need for secrecy on a document-by-document basis.

Release of the index opens the door for specific arguments on whether the public interest in release of the records outweighs the state’s interest in keeping the information confidential.

“The public has an indisputable and overriding interest in knowing about the integrity of government and the conduct of elected officials in their governance,” stated the reporter in a certification filed with the court.

DCJ began its criminal investigation in May 2011 at the behest of a pension board, according to a certification by a state pension official. Christie, Guadagno and DCJ officials have declined comment. In court papers, the state refused to acknowledge whether the case is open or closed.

Christie faces political consequences for his judgment in handling the Guadagno controversy. Rather than use his constitutional power to appoint an independent prosecutor or special investigator, the governor allowed DCJ to run the case.

It was an obvious conflict-of-interest. Guadagno is a former DCJ deputy director and now Christie’s second-in-command. She sits in the governor’s cabinet with the attorney general, who is in charge of DCJ.

The controversy began with an investigative report by New Jersey Watchdog in 2010 detailing how statements by Guadagno enabled one of her top aides to improperly collect $227,000 in pension checks from the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System.

As Monmouth County sheriff in 2008, Guadagno hired Michael W. Donovan Jr. as “chief of law enforcement division” at a $87,500 annual salary. She announced the appointment in a memo to her staff. The sheriff’s official website identified Donovan as “sheriff’s officer chief,” supervising 115 subordinate officers and 30 civilian employees.

Donovan faced a legal problem. He already was collecting an $85,000 a year state pension as a retired investigator for the county prosecutor. While double-dipping is often legal in New Jersey, this case was different.

Since the position of sheriff’s officer chief is covered by the pension system, Donovan should have been required to stop receiving pension benefits, re-enroll in the retirement plan and resume contributions to the pension fund.

Instead, Guadagno changed Donovan’s job title in several documents so her aide could get two checks, not just one, totaling $172,500 a year.

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