The question of whether Gov. Chris Christie must obey New Jersey state travel rules was left unanswered by a decision Tuesday in Mercer County Superior Court.
Judge Mary C. Jacobson dismissed a lawsuit by a New Jersey Watchdog reporter seeking records of who paid for Christie's unofficial out-of-state trips. She ruled the reporter's Open Public Records Act request was "overbroad and lacking in specifics and clarity."
To the contrary, the records request "specifically included documentation of the payment arrangement on the third party's letterhead, as required by Treasury Circular 12-14-OMB." In addition, the reporter also sought various other records on those journeys.
The Governor's Office denied the request, stating it was "unclear … and therefore invalid." After the reporter filed the lawsuit, the state argued the governor was exempt from a rule promulgated by his administration.
"Our position is that the regulation does not apply," argued Assistant Attorney General Lewis Scheindlin, representing the governor in court. "If it doesn't apply, the next question is whether these records exist."
"Well, what records do they have and how do they keep them?" asked Donald M. Doherty, the reporter's lawyer.
"We don't know how the governor's office keeps the travel records," said Jacobson. "We don't know if they keep third-party records separate from the other travel records."
However, the judge stopped short of requesting any specifics about the disputed documents, and Scheindlin did not offer details about their existence.
The hearing also raised the issue of whether Christie must abide by the code of conduct he set for himself in 2010 with Executive Order 24. The order's appendix details circumstances under which the governor can accept travel, lodging, meals and invitations to events.
Jacobson asked Scheindlin whether it applied to Christie's travel records. "I couldn't say," he replied.
"I don't think the Treasury circular or Executive Order 24 — even if they applied — could save this request," the judge concluded.
As a result, the public remains in the dark on who picked up the tabs for roughly 60 unofficial out-of-state trips Christie has taken since 2012.
A separate lawsuit by the same reporter seeking records of Christie's state-funded travel is scheduled to be heard on Sept. 19.
While Christie won a legal battle Tuesday, he risks losing his reputation as an advocate of reform.
As governor and 2016 presidential prospect, Christie clings to a carefully crafted image as a champion of ethics, transparency and open government in New Jersey.
DISCLOSURE: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff in Lagerkvist v. Office of Governor, MER-L-821-14 and Lagerkvist v. Office of Governor, MER-L-1504-14 – both filed in Mercer County Superior Court.
The New Jersey Watchdog is a public interest journalism project dedicated to promoting open, transparent, and accountable state government by reporting on the activities of agencies, bureaucracies, and politicians in New Jersey. It is funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a libertarian nonprofit organization.