Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Judge Rules Denying Gwb File Violated State Open Records Act

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Judge Rules Denying Gwb File Violated State Open Records Act

Article excerpt

A state Superior Court judge ruled Monday that the governor's office violated the Open Public Records Act when it failed to give a reporter with The Record a document related to the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal.

Mercer County Superior Court Assignment Judge Mary Jacobson also found that the state did not adequately conduct a search for the documents before it told The Record that it did not have any responsive records.

The governor's office also violated the act by not identifying a records custodian -- an individual appointed to handle OPRA requests as required under the statute -- when responding to all of the requests filed by The Record in December, Jacobson ruled.

"The office was really out of step in this regard," said Jacobson, the judge who handles most OPRA cases filed in Trenton.

Todd Wigder, deputy attorney general, declined to comment after the ruling. The state has since appointed a records custodian.

Michael Walters, an assistant attorney general, told the judge that the case should be dismissed because the state had provided all the records after the lawsuit was filed.

Jacobson awarded attorney's fees to North Jersey Media Group, which publishes The Record, and praised The Record and its reporters for their "persistence."

"They broke a lot of these stories without the OPRA records," Jacobson said.

There are at least 20 OPRA cases -- six from North Jersey Media Group -- against the state for refusing to provide public documents. The state recently reimbursed North Jersey Media Group $57,000 in attorney's fees for its legal battles after state officials improperly denied two requests from reporters in February and March.

The two suits filed against the governor's office by North Jersey Media Group stem from four OPRA requests filed by The Record. The first, submitted on Dec. 17, asked for correspondence from Aug. 1, 2013, through December 2013 between six administration officials and former Port Authority executives Bill Baroni and David Wildstein related to the September 2013 lane closures. The second request was in January, expanding the list of administration officials to 15. The third and fourth requests were filed in February and sought the state's policies on staffers' use of email for business and personal use and the use of personal email. …

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