After New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently accepted free football tickets and travel from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, two key questions emerged at the center of the controversy: Did the gifts have anything to do with Christie’s appointees to the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey giving Jones’ firm a contract to manage operations at the new One World Trade Center in New York City? And how did Christie arrive at his decision to endorse that contract?
Christie officials have publicly denied any connection between the gifts from Jones and Jones getting the contact, but there is no way to verify those denials. That's because on Monday, Port Authority officials formally blocked the release of correspondence -- if it exists -- between themselves and Christie’s office about the transaction with Legends Hospitality, the Jones-owned firm in question.
In response to International Business Times' open records request for all correspondence between the governor’s office and the Port Authority about the deal, the authority declared that the "material responsive to your request, to the extent it exists, is exempt from disclosure.” The letter from Port Authority Freedom of Information Administrator Daniel Duffy asserted that if such correspondence exists, it is part of a “deliberative process” and therefore can be kept secret.
IBTimes also requested the same correspondence from Christie’s office, but that request was also denied as "overbroad." That denial followed a 2012 New Jersey court ruling saying the governor's office must release Port Authority correspondence. The governor’s office did not respond to IBTimes’ request for comment on Monday about whether such correspondence should remain confidential.
On March 19, 2013, Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a press release instructing their Port Authority appointees to award the contract to Legends, a firm part-owned by the Cowboys and the Yankees. Jones owns the Cowboys, and one of Christie's top gubernatorial fundraisers, Jon Hanson, is a director of Yankee Global Enterprises, which owns the Yankees.
A day after the Christie-Cuomo press release, Port Authority officials cited the governors' endorsement of Legends in voting to approve the contract. Christie later accepted free tickets and travel from Jones to Cowboys games, despite New Jersey ethics rules that bar gifts to public officials from persons or entities that those officials “deal with, contact, or regulate in the course of official business.”
Christie has said he is allowed to accept gifts from Jones under an executive order he signed, and he has also said there was no connection between the Port Authority contract and him accepting gifts from Jones.
“I didn’t even know who has the concession at the Port Authority,” he said, despite the press release in which he specifically endorsed Legends as the contractor. “(If) I had known the name of the company, I wouldn’t have even known that Jerry Jones had anything to do with the company.”
In an effort to verify that assertion, IBTimes asked for the correspondence between the Port Authority and the governor’s office that led to the press release in which Christie called for Legends to receive the contract. That request was rejected only months after Port Authority officials asserted they had adopted a more transparent open-records policy.
The Port Authority contract may not be the only way Legends benefits from business that is overseen by the Christie administation. Last month, IBTimes reported that Christie officials' move to shutter the Izod Center may end up boosting a competing private arena that just announced Legends as its major concessionaire. Along with his role as a director of Yankee Global Enterprises, Hanson leads the New Jersey Gaming, Sports and Entertainment Advisory Board, which advises Christie on arena policy.
Walter Luers, a lawyer who serves as chair of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, said that any documents about the Port Authority's deal for Legends should be released.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that [the request] constituted a valid open records request,” Luers told IBTimes. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if it goes to court, the New Jersey judiciary will uphold that this information should be disclosed.” He added: “During the course of official business, the office of the Governor had communications with the Port Authority. That’s official business. And because it’s official business, it is subject to the open records act."
The rejection of IBTimes' open records request by Port Authority officials lands as the Christie administration is waging 23 court battles to keep public records secret.