Activist, blogger, journalist, whatever …

Watchdog takes the stand, tries to hide behind Shied law, as prosecutor hammers away

Photo By Cheryl Hehl Assistant Prosecutor Robert Vanderstreet questions Tina Renna about her blog, The County Watchers
Photo By Cheryl Hehl
Assistant Prosecutor Robert Vanderstreet questions Tina Renna about her blog, The County Watchers

After two grueling days on the stand, the decision of whether activist and blogger Tina Renna legally deserves protection under the New Jersey Shield Law for newspersons is in the hands of Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy.

The two-day hearing took place after Renna refused multiple times to provide the Union County Prosecutor’s Office with the names of 15 to 20 employees who she claimed availed themselves of county-owned generators after Superstorm Sandy.

Renna, who wrote about the issue on her blog The County Watchers, criticized the prosecutor’s office for not being able to find this information on their own. Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow, on the other hand, told LocalSource he did not believe the blogger had the names she claimed, maintaining there were only four to five employees involved in taking the generators, with the approval of their supervisors.

Because Renna refused to cooperate, the prosecutor slapped the blogger with a subpoena to appear before a grand jury where she would have been forced to reveal the names. Instead of appearing, Renna sought protection under the New Jersey Shield Law, one of the strongest in the nation, protecting journalists’ First Amendment right not to testify about how a story was obtained or the names of sources.

Photo By Cheryl Hehl Officials from the Union County Prosecutor's Office await the beginning of the hearing.
Photo By Cheryl Hehl
Officials from the Union County Prosecutor’s Office await the beginning of the hearing.

But while the shield law provides protection for newspersons, not every writer or blogger can invoke their rights under this law: Certain criteria must be met. The issue also surfaced in Too Much Media LLC vs. Shellee Hale in 2011, when the court ruled that online message boards were not similar to the types of news entities listed in the statute. Therefore, the blogger in that case was not allowed to invoke the privilege.

A Cranford resident, president and founder of Union County Watchdog Association and a prolific blogger on her website since 2005, Renna has been an outspoken advocate for transparency in county government. In fact, her dogged pursuit of open government has resulted in countless confrontations with the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders and she has even been physically removed from freeholder meetings because of her behavior.

Renna has used the Open Public Records Act to obtain county records and documents, uncovering a plethora of information that would not otherwise have been known to the public. The registered Republican, whose husband Joseph was terminated from a county position in 2004, has insisted since the prosecutor began pressuring her, that her investigative work the last seven years qualifies her as a true journalist. Prior to this, though, Renna only referred to herself as a watchdog and activist on her blog.

(See related story: Watchdog has her day in court with prosecutor)

Cassidy heard oral arguments on both sides of the issue in early February from Assistant Prosecutor Robert Vanderstreet and Renna’s attorney, Bruce Rosen, but the superior court judge found a full hearing was needed in order to decide if Renna was entitled to protection under the law.

Monday, when the special hearing began, Renna was confident as she took the stand and her attorney began direct questioning. Rosen highlighted the extent of the activist’s work since 2005, laboriously going over every facet of the blogger’s website and all the information available to those who log on to the site.

He went into great detail with Renna about the seven “hyper local” newspapers she and her husband produce six times a year, but Vanderstreet strongly objected. He countered that these publications did not qualify as true newspapers because they were not printed weekly or bi-weekly, and contained only 16 pages of copy, not 24, which is required in order to legally qualify as a “newspaper.” He also brought up that out of all these “newspaper,” only one carried any articles authored by Renna.

This particular issue is critical because the shield law specifically requires that in order for a blogger to meet the criteria as a journalist, they must be connected to print media in some form or fashion.

Renna admitted all but one of the publications was press release driven, with  Around About Petersburg, an Elizabeth paper, actually containing articles she personally wrote.

Rosen eventually asked Renna if she considered herself a journalist and the blogger did not hesitate to respond “I do.” Later, under cross examination, Vanderstreet hammered Renna with countless examples of blogs she wrote over the last seven years where she said she was a “watchdog” and “activist,” not a journalist.

He also produced several copies of watchdog blogs that appeared to have been altered since the assistant prosecutor made copies of the entries. Renna, though, did not deny she recently censored  the blog posts to reflect her position in a more favorable light as a journalist, and not an activist blogger.

Rosen moved on to questioning Renna about her purpose as president of the Union County Watchdog Association, with the blogger stressing that it was to monitor the actions of Union County government and disseminate information to the public, using OPRA to obtain documents and records which she put on the watchdog website.

When asked how the association financially supported itself, the blogger claimed the non-profit organization got by on donations, specifically noting that last year, for example, a total of $4,000 was collected. However, neither Rosen nor Vanderstreet asked Renna how she managed to pay legal counsel for services during the seven lawsuits and multiple appeals she has waged against the county over the last seven years.

Rosen spent considerable time on issues Renna investigated over the years, specifically MusicFest. This particular issue, which Renna pursued until the prosecutor’s office looked into it, was found to be poorly organized and unaccounted for financially.

“We put a lot of effort into following the financing, vendors, lack of documentation,” the blogger said, adding that “it was virtually impossible to follow the dollars on these events.”

Renna also said that while she worked hard to uncover issues like this, daily and local newspapers only skimmed the surface or did not report on them at all.

Rosen then went into how the blogger goes about news gathering, another criteria that is important if Renna is to gain protection under the shield law.

“I talk with sources, attend meetings, read documents, ask questions during public meetings and OPRA documents, and read county press releases,” Renna said. Rosen then asked the blogger if she approached county officials to get information.

“In the very distant past, but at the county you are told to place an OPRA,” she said, explaining why she no longer approaches Union County Communication Director Sebastian D’Elia for information.

“I was sued by the public information officer for defamation of character,” Renna said, adding that it was a very contentious relationship, but she won that lawsuit. However, under cross examination, Vanderstreet managed to bring out why the blogger did not get along with county officials.

Playing several minutes of a video tape of a freeholder meeting, even though Rosen strongly objected to it being introduced, it was immediately evident that when Renna approached the podium she became confrontational with one particular member of the freeholder board, Daniel Sullivan.

“Your attacking citizens for participating in the Democratic process,” she said in response to Sullivan saying “here she goes, throwing F-bombs.” But then the interaction escalated with Renna screaming “your attacking me. I step up to the microphone and you attack me.”

Renna then told the freeholder board “you are all going to hell. Everyone of you is  going to rot in hell,” before being escorted out of the meeting.

Another video was equally damning, showing that upon approaching the podium at one meeting, Renna immediately leveled accusations at the board and then began to yell at Sullivan. The freeholder told the blogger to stop the insults and yelling but Renna refused to stop, attacking the freeholder verbally.

“You are a psychopath,” she yelled, telling the audience “their throwing me out of the meeting.” Vanderstreet, however, did not ask Renna whether other journalists ever approached the podium to question the board. According to county officials, reporters do not step to the podium to question the freeholders, but rather wait until after the meeting to obtain the answers they are seeking.

Renna was evasive when Vanderstreet cross examined her about her behavior on the videos, as well as what she was thinking when she wrote multiple blog posts that often contained expletives and verbal bashing. Leveling looks at Rosen and rolling her eyes under this line of questioning, the blogger’s attorney eventually objected.

“Asking a journalist what they were thinking is part of the editorial process,” Rosen said to Cassidy, referring to the fact that under the shield law a reporter cannot be asked what they were thinking when pursuing a story.

Renna did say that “it is my First Amendment right as a journalist to address my government.” However, in blog posts, the activist said something entirely different.

Vanderstreet showed Renna multiple blog posts where she mentioned that she was giving her “local watchdog view,” and “I believe as a government watchdog, I need to report things differently.” On other blog posts Renna also noted that “part of my success as a watchdog is my ability to connect the dots, no special skills required.”

Yet another blog post by Renna mentioned by Vanderstreet showed the blogger wrote of “not being part of the brotherly journalist pack.” She also received an award in 2005 for being an activist.

The assistant prosecutor also questioned Renna on how she went about interviewing sources for her blog posts, asking if she ever gave the opposing side an opportunity to respond. Renna was evasive, refusing to admit that she never called the opposing side, but she did point out “they always have the opportunity to respond.”

Vanderstreet then drilled Renna on whether she verified the information she gathered about the county two or three times, as journalists do when compiling an article. Renna bristled, but responded.

“When possible,” the blogger said when pressed.

Then the assistant prosecutor moved quickly into another area, asking Renna why she used the Open Public Records Act to obtain so many documents from the county.

“Do you use OPRA documents for the purpose of lawsuits?” he pressed, but Rosen quickly objected to the line of questioning and Renna never had to respond.

Vanderstreet also brought out that in a past blog post Renna suggested Worrall Community Newspapers, the publisher of LocalSource, “shows journalistic responsibility” by not allowing a guest columnist on the editorial page who had connections to the county through legal contracts.

Renna did not deny that she wrote about this, shrugging her shoulders at the question and smirking.

Vanderstreet chipped away at Renna under cross examination, attempting to connect the dots between her husband being terminated from his position at the county in 2004 and the reason why she feels so much animosity against the county. But the blogger was evasive in her response.

Then the assistant prosecutor dug deeper.

“Do you feel he was treated unfairly by Union County government?” he asked, but again Renna merely responded that she did not have any feelings one way or another about the situation.

Vanderstreet then layed significant groundwork with exhibits showing Renna had been a registered Republican since 2004, but prior to her husband losing his county job, she was a registered Democrat.

“Did you disclose anywhere in your blog that you changed your voter registration?” he asked, and Renna said she had not. Vanderstreet then delved into the blogger’s affiliation with the local and county Republican party, along with bringing out the UCWA received monetary donations from the Union County Republican party.

The assistant prosecutor barely touched on the generator issue, but  both Rosen and Vanderstreet were expected to give summations Monday with Cassidy reserving judgement until she can review the matter and provide a written decision. A decision is expected later this month.

2 Responses to "Activist, blogger, journalist, whatever …"

  1. Citizenzwatch   March 14, 2013 at 8:34 am

    Tina is no jouranlist the first time the word was used was after she recieved a Subpoena.

  2. Judge Smails   March 18, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    Cheryl –

    When Renna’s testimony used a contraction for ” you are,” the proper spelling is “you’re,” not “your.”

    So we know the shield law won’t apply to you.