By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog
A debate over secrecy and Gov. Chris Christie’s safety took a strange turn in the Labor Day weekend traffic.
Citing security concerns, the New Jersey governor refuses to release records showing which hotels he stayed during official trips. Yet his press office publicly identified which vehicle in the governor’s motorcade usually carries Christie.
Christie typically rides in the lead sports utility vehicle, which is closely followed by a second SUV, both driven by New Jersey State Police troopers dressed in plain clothes, spokesman Michael Drewniak told the Star-Ledger. The newspaper also published a file photo of the governor’s motorcade.
Drewniak was explaining a traffic incident Monday near Seaside Park in which the second SUV in the governor’s entourage allegedly cut off another motorist. No accident, arrests or citations were reported.
Meanwhile, the governor’s office is trying to block release of records that identify where Christie stayed at taxpayers’ expense in 2012 and 2013. The lodging receipts are among the documents sought by a New Jersey Watchdog reporter in a public records suit against the governor’s office filed in Mercer County Superior Court.
“In the opinion of the State Police, releasing that information could put the governor’s physical safety in danger,” argued Deputy Attorney General Todd Wigder last week in a brief to Judge Mary C. Jacobson.
The state’s reasons why those hotel records should be secret are also secret, detailed in a hush-hush certification by Kevin Cowan, acting State Police captain.
Cowan’s statement will “reveal exactly the tactical decision-making that cause them to deem this information confidential in the first place,” wrote Wigder. “This can only be done under seal, for the court’s eyes only.”
Concealing the records from the public could hide possible abuses by Christie, who has argued he is exempt from his administration’s travel rules for state officials.
Wigder is asking Jacobson to accept the Cowan certification as evidence without allowing the plaintiff a chance to review it and respond. The judge is tentatively slated to consider the motion in court Sept. 19.
Before taking office as New Jersey governor, Christie already had a reputation as a high-rolling traveler when taxpayers are footing the bill.
As a U.S. attorney, Christie was singled out by the Justice Department’s inspector general for violating travel regulations with excessive lodging expenses on two-thirds of his trips from 2007 to 2009.
For example: Christie prearranged a $236 car service for a round-trip between an airport and his $449-a-night hotel, four miles apart, rather than take a taxi.
“In terms of percentage of travel, U.S. Attorney C was the U.S. Attorney who most often exceeded the government rate without adequate justification,” stated the report. Christie has acknowledged he was U.S. Attorney C.
Christie refused to be interviewed by the inspector general about his expenses, according the report.
As governor, Christie has claimed he is not bound by state travel rules. The issue arose in a lawsuit by the reporter seeking records of which “third-party” organizations – including political groups and outside interests – paid for Christie’s frequent “unofficial” trips.
State agencies are required to collect and keep documentation of who’s paying, according to Treasury Circular 12-14-OMB. Christie’s lawyers claim the rules don’t apply to governors, citing a 1979 letter to former Gov. Brendan Byrne from a state budget director.
Jacobson avoided ruling on the governor’s assertion. Instead, the judge dismissed the suit, deciding the reporter’s request for the records was too broad and technically deficient. An appeal is under consideration.
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DISCLOSURE: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff in Lagerkvist v. Office of Governor, MER-L-1504-14, filed in Mercer County Superior Court.