Posted by Reblog: Lehigh Valley News.
The prosecutor's office had refused to release documents into a probe involving officers taking county-owned generators for personal use during Superstorm Sandy.
The Warren County Prosecutor’s Office must publicly release details regarding an investigation into county jail officers’ personal use of county-owned generators during Superstorm Sandy, a state Superior Court judge has ruled.
The attorney for the plaintiff in the case, open-government advocate John Paff, said the ruling is “extremely favorable” for his client. It means the prosecutor’s office will have to disclose its entire file on the investigation, including the name of at least one jail officer who was the target of the probe, attorney Walter Luers said.
“It’s about 98 percent of what we were looking for,” Luers said, adding the only caveat to the ruling is that the names and personal information about witnesses who were interviewed can be blacked out in the file’s documents.
Superior Court Judge Amy O’Connor issued the 10-page ruling Wednesday. Paff, who chairs the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Group, sought the documents because he believes the jail officers needed to be held publicly accountable. The prosecutor’s office has argued that the documents should remain secret.
The prosecutor’s office launched a criminal investigation into the allegations about the use of the generators. The prosecutor’s office determined no criminal charges were warranted and sent the case to the Warren County Sheriff’s Office, which has oversight of the jail. That office conducted an internal investigation and deemed it a personnel matter.
Sheriff David Gallant has never revealed how many officers were involved or what punishment was handed down.
Multiple reports surfaced last year across New Jersey of public employees using publicly owned generators to provide electricity to their homes during lengthy power outages in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. The storm in October 2012 left parts of the state in the dark for more than two weeks.
The misuses of the generators were so widespread that lawmakers proposed legislation aimed at dissuading public employees from abusing their access to public equipment by making such actions subject to forfeiture of their jobs and possible imprisonment.
Wednesday’s ruling by O’Connor gives the prosecutor’s office 60 days to release the documents related to the Warren County investigation. Paff said today that he’s concerned the prosecutor’s office will appeal the ruling before the deadline to release the documents.
His attorney said he’s uncertain how the prosecutor’s office will proceed. The office can file an appeal, but if it doesn’t, it can still hold out up to the 60 days to comply with the judge’s order, Luers said. He hadn’t been in touch with the prosecutor’s office or heard from anyone there regarding the order as of today.
Efforts to reach Warren County Prosecutor Richard Burke were unsuccessful today. He did not return a phone message seeking comment. Gallant, the sheriff, said today that he only recently learned of the decision. He referred questions about the ruling to the prosecutor’s office.
“It will be up to the prosecutor’s office what action they take,” he said. “I just adhere to the attorney general’s guidelines as to what to do with an internal investigation.”
In June, O’Connor denied Paff’s Open Public Records Act request for the documents, but Wednesday’s ruling didn’t cite OPRA as a reason the documents must now be released.
It instead cited New Jersey common law, which “gives the citizen a right to inspect public documents if the documents are public records, the citizen has the requisite interest or standing to inspect the records and the interest in disclosing the records outweighs the need for confidentiality,” the ruling states.
O’Connor wrote that Paff’s request meets this threshold provided the names of witnesses are kept confidential. She wrote that maintaining the confidentiality of the documents does not outweigh the public’s interest in the case.
Luers said he believes the documents will reveal the name of one officer who was a target in the criminal investigation and is unsure if other officers potentially involved will be identified.
“My understanding is that only one officer was referred to the prosecutor’s office, but the reality is we still don’t know what the documents say,” he said.