NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A state appeals court handed a defeat Wednesday to a former county prosecutor who claims he was fired because he complained about the dropping of an indictment that involved a donor to Gov. Chris Christie.
Bennett Barlyn, a former assistant Hunterdon County prosecutor, is seeking grand jury materials related to a 43-count indictment against former Hunterdon sheriff Deborah Trout and two subordinates. The state attorney general's office dismissed the indictment in 2010.
In his lawsuit, Barlyn said he was suspended and fired soon after he complained to a superior that he felt the case was dropped for political consideration because it involved Robert Hariri, a member of Christie's transition team who had donated money to Christie's campaign. Hariri was not charged in the indictment.
Barlyn sought access to the grand jury materials, because he believes they will demonstrate that the indictment was legally sufficient and should not have been dismissed.
Wednesday's appellate ruling, which reversed a lower court's decision, rejected that request.
"In our opinion, plaintiff has failed to demonstrate a strong showing of particularized need that outweighs the interest in grand jury secrecy," the three-judge panel wrote.
Grand jury proceedings are closed and witness testimony is kept secret, with rare exceptions. Barlyn said Wednesday that he and his attorney will continue to push ahead with the lawsuit and will gather more material and re-apply for access to the grand jury materials.
The ruling "postpones the inevitable," Barlyn said. "The court recognized that the material is relevant."
Barlyn worked in the prosecutor's office for several years and was on its team in the lengthy manslaughter trial of former NBA star Jayson Williams, which ended in a guilty plea in 2010. He is now working as a schoolteacher. His lawsuit doesn't specify the amount of damages he seeks, but a notice of intent to sue filed in December 2010 estimated the amount at $3 million.
Trout, Undersheriff Michael Russo and sheriff's investigator John Falat Jr. were charged with offenses including misconduct and falsification of employment records. According to Barlyn's lawsuit, Hariri may have received a fake law enforcement ID from Russo. The lawsuit also contends Russo told a reporter that Christie would step in and "have this whole thing thrown out."
Christie has denied that he had anything to do with the dropping of the indictment.
Trout, Falat and Russo have filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Hunterdon prosecutor's office that claims, among other things, retaliation and malicious prosecution. According to Barlyn, they also are seeking access to the grand jury transcripts — but to show the indictment against them was deficient.
"One of us is right and one of us is wrong," he said. "We're simply looking for an opportunity to use these materials to prove it."