The New Jersey assistant attorney general had a message for his boss: The governor's office wanted to know what was going on down in Hunterdon County.
It was September 2010 and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's administration was evincing special interest in the fate of a corruption scandal that had emerged in a rural stretch of the state. Specifically, the governor's office was keen to understand where things stood for one county prosecutor, Bennett Barlyn, whose agency had successfully indicted the local sheriff and two of her underlings.
Things stood like this: Barlyn had been fired two days earlier, just a few weeks after the Christie administration asked a judge to quash the 43 indictments his office had secured. The judge complied. Barlyn would ultimately file a lawsuit asserting that he had been the victim of a crude form of justice endemic to New Jersey politics: He had been axed as retribution for seeking to maintain the indictments lodged against Christie's friends and political allies.
In the 16 months since the New York Times cast a spotlight on the Hunterdon County case and Barlyn's whistleblower lawsuit, the Christie administration has consistently dismissed talk of inappropriate intervention as the stuff of wild conspiracy theory. “Governor Christie had never recalled meeting or talking with a single one of these oddball characters,” his spokesman wrote in an October 2013 letter to the Times, adding that the governor “had no knowledge whatsoever of the case in question, its prosecution or ultimate dismissal by the judge.”
But the email sent that September day by Dermot O'Grady -- a Christie administration deputy attorney general tasked with taking over from the Hunterdon prosecutor's office -- presents an alternate picture. Among a document trove Barlyn is planning to file on Thursday in Superior Court in Trenton, the O'Grady email suggests that a senior political aide to Christie, Michele Brown, was indeed interested in the Hunterdon County case. She was especially interested in one of the local prosecutors in the office that had persuaded the grand jury to issue indictments.
"The governor's office...called me and indicated that Michelle Brown [sic] may have some questions concerning Barlyn," O'Grady wrote in the email, dated Sept. 17, 2010, and sent to his supervisor, Stephen Taylor of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Division of Criminal Justice in Trenton. O'Grady no longer works at the attorney general's office and could not be reached for comment. Michele Brown did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement sent to International Business Times on Thursday, Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts declined to address the inquiry about Barlyn from the governor's office, while maintaining that Christie had not been involved in the quashing of the Hunterdon County indictments. "The governor made it clear that he never discussed the case with anyone at the Attorney General's office," Roberts wrote.
The O'Grady email and the broader collection of documents expected to be filed Thursday represent but one side in a hotly contested legal dispute. Yet the latest disclosures challenge key aspects of the Christie administration's defense -- not least, the notion that the governor never met any of the central figures in the Hunterdon County corruption scandal.
The documents place special emphasis on a key relationship at the center of the imbroglio, an alleged friendship between Robert Hariri -- an executive at the pharmaceutical giant Celgene as well as a major contributor to Christie's political campaigns -- and one of the officials indicted for malfeasance, Hunterdon County Undersheriff Michael Russo.
Local prosecutors interviewed Hariri in 2010 about reports that he had received a fake police badge from the Hunterdon County sheriff's department, a token of appreciation he had supposedly secured via a friendship with Russo.
In an email exchange with IBTimes, Hariri dismissed as "patently false" the notion that he had improperly received a police badge. He said Russo had given him a sheriff's department identification card so he could visit with sheriff's deputies to discuss emergency preparedness, a subject in which he is well-versed as a medical expert.
Hariri also denied a friendship with Russo. "I do not know Russo other than through four or five very professional exchanges where he requested my opinion of educational matters relevant to first responders," he said.
That characterization collides with some 93 pages of email correspondence Hariri exchanged with Russo over a five-year period that are included in the filing expected to be made on Thursday. In one email, Hariri urges Russo to attend a 2009 fundraiser he hosted for Christie at Equus, a gourmet restaurant in Bernardsville, N.J. In another email sent on Dec. 9, 2009, Hariri tells Russo he had raised $15,000 for Russo’s campaign for sheriff in neighboring Warren County, assuring him, “I have lots more coming.”
Hariri used his private plane to fly Russo to Washington for a law enforcement conference, Russo's lawyer told IBTimes, confirming previously published reports.
The same correspondence between Russo and Hariri suggests that the undersheriff also enjoyed access to Christie, challenging the governor's assertions that he did not know the principals involved in the Hunterdon County case.
Throughout his emails, Russo frequently refers to the governor as “Chris,” while detailing at least seven events he claims to have attended with the governor. At two of those events, Russo claims to have spoken with Christie.
In an email sent to Hariri on Sept. 30, 2009, Russo claims to have spent several hours with the governor’s running mate: “I’ve been campaigning with Kim [Guadagno] all morning!” Barlyn pointed the IBTimes to a photo Russo published on his campaign website as he pursued his bid to become Warren County sheriff: Russo posing with Christie.
Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said in an email to IBTimes Thursday that it was possible the governor had some dealings with Russo and other figures in the Hunterdon case. "The Governor and Lt. Governor crossed paths with hundreds of people during the course of the 2009 campaign and Mr. Russo may very well have been one of them," Roberts wrote. "We’ve never claimed otherwise."
Barlyn's case has burgeoned into a potentially significant political problem for Christie just as he is reportedly gearing up to mount a presidential campaign. Earlier this month, a pair of federal criminal investigators interviewed Barlyn about the circumstances surrounding the quashing of the indictments, he told IBTimes. He said he gave the federal investigators the same documents he plans to file Thursday in his wrongful termination lawsuit.
The United States Attorney's office in Newark confirmed the interview but later released a statement clarifying that no formal criminal investigation had been launched against Christie personally. A subsequent report from ABC News confirmed that federal authorities were actively probing "the conduct of other current and former members of Christie's gubernatorial administration."
The investigation stems from events that played out more than six years ago in Hunterdon County, a patch of western New Jersey hugging the Delaware River. There, according to the case brought to the grand jury, then-sheriff Deborah Trout ran her office largely as she saw fit, helping her friends while taking liberties with the law.
Barlyn’s office began probing her in 2008, after a tip from a source in the sheriff's office. Investigators found that Trout had attempted to hire under-qualified officers, demanded loyalty oaths from her employees, and permitted the distribution of unauthorized sheriff’s IDs to politically connected friends of the department. The grand jury bought the case, delivering indictments against Trout, Undersheriff Russo and an investigator, John Falat Jr.
After the Christie administration stepped in and had the indictments overturned, sparing Trout, Russo and Falat from further criminal vulnerability, several members of the grand jury told the New York Times that the evidence laid out against them had been powerful.
A lawyer for Trout, Russo and Falat said his clients had done nothing wrong, adding that Christie played no role in overturning their indictments. "Any suggestion to the contrary is a conspiracy theory," said the lawyer, William Courtney. "The indictments were withdrawn because of shoddy legal work, not because of any supposed relationship between them and Christie."
Even before Barlyn's latest filing, the outlines of political alliances between Christie and those in the crosshairs in Hunterdon County were publicly visible. Sheriff Trout headed a group that had supported Christie's 2009 gubernatorial campaign. Christie running-mate Guadagno later singled out Trout for praise for her work on the campaign. "Saw a lot of your staff on the trail," wrote the now-Lt. Gov. Guadagno in an email to Trout two days after the 2009 election. "Thank you for giving them to us."
According to campaign finance disclosures, Hariri lives on substantial rural acreage within a half-mile of Todd Christie, the Governor’s brother and political confidante. Hariri was a member of Christie's transition team. His employer, Celgene, is the current workplace of Christie’s former chief of staff, Richard Bagger. The firm and its employees have since 2011 contributed $155,000 to the Republican Governors Association, for which Christie held senior leadership positions between 2011 and 2014. Celgene also occupies a seat on the board of Choose New Jersey, a state promotional body that has funded Christie's international travel.
According to the documents Barlyn is planning to file on Thursday, Hariri told local police in a 2010 interview that he had the previous year personally hosted the fundraiser at the Equus restaurant.
Hariri acknowledged his relationship with Christie, telling IBTimes that he and the governor reside "in the same community” and "have children at the same schools." He called himself "exceptionally proud to support the governor," while rejecting as "preposterous and politically motivated" any suggestion that he used his relationship with Christie to shut down the prosecution.
Back in May 2010, a local newspaper in Hunterdon County reported that Russo had been overheard in the sheriff's office asserting that Gov. Christie himself would step in and "have this whole thing thrown out." Russo has since denied making that statement.
But the documents expected to be filed Thursday include statements attributed to then-Deputy Attorney General O'Grady that suggest he'd been dispatched by the Christie administration to take over the Hunterdon case with a clear directive: Quash the indictments and eliminate the prosecutors who had engineered them.
“When I came here, I had three things to do: Dismiss the sheriff’s case, and get rid of the other two,” O’Grady is quoted as saying in notes kept by the lead investigator on the probe, Detective Sergeant Kenneth Rowe. His notes record that the “other two” referred to Barlyn and and another assistant prosecutor, Charles Ouslander. “They were both problems," O'Grady said, according to Rowe's notes. "They [Trenton] are tired of hearing from and about Hunterdon County.”
Ouslander retired from the prosecutor's office less than two weeks after Barlyn's firing. He declined to comment, though he has previously echoed Barlyn in maintaining that the overturning of the indictments was "unlawful" and "obviously influenced by improper political considerations.”
Another section of the detective's notes detailed O’Grady’s supposed displeasure with the basic idea of prosecuting a top law enforcement official. “You don’t indict a sitting sheriff," O'Grady is quoted as saying. "You just don’t.”
Rowe later wrote in his notes that the quashing of the indictments appeared to be an instance of political imperatives trumping legal facts. “I believe all thrown out so as to protect the identity of Hariri, along with Trout/Russo," the detective concluded, "because of affiliations with Christie w/Christie/Guadagno.”
Barlyn's filing made public a 2010 memo penned by his colleague in the Hunterdon County prosecutor's office, William McGovern, in which he warned the attorney general that the quashing of the indictments was unlawful.
“In my 20 years of government service, I have never experienced government officials, in general, and prosecutors sworn to uphold the law in particular, behave in such an offensive and subversive manner,” McGovern declared. He added that the dismissal of the indictments “can at best be characterized a peerless example of unethical conduct, and at worst official misconduct, even by New Jersey standards.”