Federal law enforcement officials have launched a criminal investigation of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's administration, pursuing allegations the governor's staff broke the law when they quashed grand jury indictments against Christie supporters, International Business Times has learned.
Two criminal investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday interviewed the man who leveled those charges, Bennett Barlyn. He was fired from the Hunterdon County prosecutor's office in August 2010, and subsequently brought a whistleblower lawsuit against the Christie administration, claiming he had been punished for objecting to the dismissal of the indictments of the governor's supporters for a range of corrupt activities.
Barlyn told IBTimes that he met with the federal investigators at his Pennsylvania home for more than an hour on Wednesday afternoon. He said they specifically focused on why Christie’s then-attorney general, Paula Dow, had moved to expunge the indictments. The investigators are examining what state and federal laws may have been broken in the process. Barlyn said the investigators appeared to be at an exploratory stage, with no certainty that criminal charges would ultimately be filed. The meeting followed a June letter to Barlyn from New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney, Paul Fishman, instructing Barlyn to be in touch with his office’s investigative team about the case.
The New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment. Christie has denied any involvement in Barlyn's termination, while maintaining that he does not even know the men and women he has been accused of aiding. The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment.
The case centers on exurban/rural Hunterdon County, in western New Jersey along the Delaware River. There, Barlyn claims, then-county Sheriff Deborah Trout ran her office like a private fiefdom, hiring her friends without respect to their experience, and without initiating proper background checks as mandated by state law.
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Barlyn’s office began probing Trout in 2008, eventually convening a grand jury that returned 43 indictments against her, Undersheriff Michael Russo and investigator John Falat Jr. The Christie administration then intervened, took over the prosecution and -- in an extraordinary step -- moved to have the grand jury indictments overturned, saying they were legally and factually deficient. When Barlyn raised objections, he was fired.
The expunging of those indictments, Barlyn's termination and his allegations that Christie’s administration quashed the case to protect the governor’s supporters were first aired in a lengthy story in the New York Times in 2013. Several members of the grand jury told the Times that the evidence supporting the indictments was strong, and that overturning them seemed motivated by political considerations.
According to the Times account and Barlyn's claims in his whistleblower lawsuit, Sheriff Trout, Undersheriff Russo and investigator Falat gained Christie's protective intervention because of the political connections of those involved in the case.
Trout headed a group that had backed Christie's gubernatorial campaign in 2009. The county prosecutors' case against Trout and her underlings also involved embarrassing allegations about a particularly prominent figure -- Robert Hariri, a high-level executive at the pharmaceutical giant Celgene, which is headquartered in New Jersey. Though Hariri was not charged, county prosecutors alleged he had obtained fake law enforcement identification from the sheriff’s office after he flew Russo on his private jet to a conference in Washington.
Hariri was a major contributor to Christie's campaign as well a member of the governor's transition team. Celgene employs Christie’s former chief of staff, Richard Bagger, and the firm has made $160,000 worth of donations to the Republican Governors Association -- which until recently was chaired by Christie. Celgene occupies a seat on the board of Choose New Jersey, which has funded Christie's international travel.
All the connections to Christie apparently inspired confidence among the defendants. According to the Hunterdon County Democrat, Russo asserted that Christie would "step in [and] have this whole thing thrown out.”
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak has insisted that Barlyn's claims are "conspiratorial nonsense" and that "Gov. Christie had never recalled meeting or talking with a single one of these oddball characters" involved in the Hunterdon County case.
One of the two federal agents Barlyn says questioned him on Wednesday was James Otten, who has also been a part of the investigation of the Port Authority’s closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge.
Barlyn said a “significant” portion of his discussion with the investigators was about Gov. Christie himself, and why Russo reportedly asserted that the governor would intervene to stop the county prosecution.
Barlyn told IBTimes that he gave federal investigators a thumb drive of documents that he “considers to be critical evidence” of criminal misconduct. Barlyn obtained the documents through the discovery process in his separate civil whistleblower case. Many of those documents have not been publicly disclosed.
"Based on all the evidence, the reasons given by the Christie administration to throw these charges out against the governor's allies were deliberately intended to mislead the judge," Barlyn told International Business Times. "The transcripts from the grand jury proceedings prove that the Christie administration deceived the court to stop the prosecution, which is the definition of obstructing justice," he said.
The Christie administration has refused to release the grand jury transcripts in question, which would allow the public to assess whether the administration's stated reasons for throwing out the county prosecutors’ indictments were justified. Barlyn has previously asked a judge to release the grand jury records. A lower court ordered the Christie administration to release the records, but that ruling was reversed by an appellate court at the Christie administration's urging.
The appellate court, however, left open an opportunity for Barlyn to renew his motion. The Justice Department has the power to subpoena those records in a criminal investigation.
Updated: After this story was published, a spokesman for the New Jersey U.S. attorney's office, Matt Reilly, said their policy is to neither confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation, but he said the governor himself is not the target of a probe. The story has been updated to reflect his comments.