The Record: Christie’s administration may have violated public records law

An email released on Wednesday perhaps should have been available to the paper sooner

Among the documents made public after the New Jersey State Assembly Democrats obtained them via subpoena, seeking more information about the Fort Lee gridlock in September, was an email dated September 12, 2013. It was sent by David Wildstein—the Port Authority official who ordered the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge—to staffers for Jersey Governor Chris Christie and included a statement later made by the Port Authority, that the closed lanes were part of a “traffic safety” review.

But The Record, a newspaper based in northern New Jersey, says it filed a request for information in December, asking for documents related to the Port Authority closing local lanes to the bridge. According to Jennifer Borg, general counsel for the North Jersey Media Group, which publishes The Record, Wildstein’s email should have been part of the documentation the paper received in response.

“By failing to produce it, and by telling us that they didn’t have any records that were responsive to the request, they [the Christie administration] violated the Open Public Records Act,” she said. “We are going to be filing a complaint against the office of the Governor.”

The Open Public Records Act is a New Jersey law that allows the public to request access to state government records. (While the Freedom of Information Act covers access to federal government records, OPRA specifically governs the public’s right to access on a state level.)

Wildstein sent the email from his personal account to Drewniak’s official and Kelly’s personal accounts respectively. But Bruce Rosen, an attorney and former reporter for The Record, said this did not alter The Record’s right to receive the message. “It is the law that public officials cannot evade the requirements of OPRA by using personal emails to conduct the public’s business,” he said.

The Record was still the first to report on the email: Its article on the bridge scandal, which refers to Wildstein’s message, beat The New York Times’ to publication by 20-30 minutes. But if The Record had received the email when it asked in December, it might have gotten its scoop sooner.

Neither the New Jersey Press Association nor the state Government Records Council, which administers OPRA and oversees disputes, returned calls for comment.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu Tags: , ,