It's Sunshine Week, but you wouldn't know it in New Jersey. This week, Gov. Chris Christie’s administration blocked a Democratic lawmaker’s effort to learn hidden details of the Republican’s controversial Exxon Mobil settlement. Separately, the administration also withheld other government documents related to a top Christie aide who went to work for Exxon's New Jersey lobbying firm a few months before the settlement was disclosed.
Two weeks ago, Christie’s appointed attorney general formally announced that the state had agreed to settle its lawsuit against Exxon for widespread contamination at its Bayonne and Linden facilities for just $225 million. The settlement, which was far less than the nearly $8.9 billion the state had been seeking, came when the judge presiding over the case was reportedly set to issue a ruling.
The attorney general said the agreement with Exxon would also cover “relatively minor” natural resource damages at 16 undisclosed “company service stations and other facilities located throughout New Jersey.” According to state Sen. Ray Lesniak, the Democrat who is leading an effort to block the settlement, Christie officials plan to keep those details secret. Lesniak announced Thursday that the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had rejected his open records request for information about pollution at the other Exxon sites and retail gasoline stations included in the agreement.
'Let Them Off The Hook'
“The administration not only wants to give Exxon a big break with a settlement of cents on the dollar for polluting the Bayonne and Bayway [Linden] communities, it wants to let them off the hook for damage at 16 other facilities and a countless number of service stations,” Lesniak said in a news release. “They won’t even identify the facilities or say if assessments have been done to determine the extent of contamination. Exxon could be getting off the hook for billions of dollars in additional damage costs.”
Lesniak said the state DEP rejected his request, made under the state's Open Public Records Act (OPRA), “because we didn’t identify the specific locations." Lesniak called this “a classic ‘Catch-22’” since “it’s the administration that is keeping that information a secret.” Walter Luers, who chairs the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, told International Business Times in an email that “it seems disingenuous of the DEP to claim the Senator's OPRA request is not sufficiently specific when the DEP knows (or is a phone call or email away from knowing) the 16 sites, and Senator Lesniak does not.”
"Really, this issue has been completely misunderstood and misrepresented," said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP. "If ultimately approved by the judge, this would be a great win for the people of New Jersey." Christie’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Lesniak promised to “go to court to force the administration to comply with the information request,” something that many news outlets and transparency advocates have had to do in order to get answers to public records requests made to Christie officials under OPRA. In February, Mother Jones reported that the Christie administration was fighting 23 separate public records requests in court. Last year, the Associated Press reported that the Christie administration had spent $441,000 of taxpayer cash to reimburse plaintiffs' lawyers for court battles to block the release of government documents.
After news of Christie’s Exxon settlement first leaked, IBTimes reported that Exxon’s New Jersey lobbying firm had hired Christie’s departing deputy chief of staff, Lou Goetting, in October. IBTimes filed an open records request seeking all emails to or from Goetting that mentioned Exxon. On Tuesday, the governor’s office released a letter saying it is withholding an undisclosed number of communications referencing Exxon, citing an exemption for "inter-agency or intra-agency advisory, consultative, or deliberative material."
“Unfortunately, the administration takes a hard line on OPRA requests, and I and other OPRA lawyers have had to bring several cases to get access to what we think is even basic information about the governor or his administration,” Luers said. “It is also our strong impression that politics, not the law, directs decisions on what to release.”
This week's move to block the release of government documents adds to a growing list of similar moves by the Christie administration as he explores a possible run for president in 2016.
In February, Christie’s appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey rejected IBTimes’ request for correspondence between the agency and Christie's office about awarding a contract to Legends Hospitality, a company partly owned by the Dallas Cowboys. That contract came under scrutiny after it was revealed that Christie had accepted free football tickets and travel to Texas for a Cowboys game from team owner Jerry Jones.
In October, New Jersey’s State Investment Council, whose members are appointed by Christie, delayed the findings of a pay-to-play probe into a $10,000 contribution made to the New Jersey State Republican Committee by now-Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker until after he won election. The Christie appointees later cleared Baker, who made the donation months before his firm received a $25 million pension commitment from the State Investment Council.