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Prosecutor’s Office asks UCWA to throw them a bone; refusal leads to subpoena
By: Cheryl Hehl - Staff Writer
UNION — After weeks and months of lambasting the county and the prosecutor’s office for dragging their feet on an investigation into misused generators, a county watchdog has refused to help when asked, even though she claims to have all the answers.
The prosecutor’s office is hoping activist and blogger Tina Renna gives them the names of the 16 to 20 county employees who she alleges took home county-owned generators during Superstorm Sandy, but Renna is not talking and shielding herself from revealing anything she knows.
In late November when Renna began writing on her Union County Watchdog blog that she had inside information there were more than a dozen county employees who took home generators for personal use during the 12-day power outage, the prosecutor’s office took notice.
At that point the Union County Freeholder Board went on the record about the matter to explain the prosecutor’s office was conducting an inquiry into what took place. It was, they stressed, an inquiry, and not an investigation.
The county, while initially launching their own investigation into the matter, suspended all efforts pending completion of the prosecutor’s inquiry. County Counsel Robert Barry said at the time that the county was cooperating with prosecutors but afterward the county would “take whatever administrative actions we deem necessary.”
In December, when Renna reported on the UCWA blog that the salaries of these employees totaled $1.4 million, prosecutors began to think Renna had inside information that could aid them in their query into the “generatorgate” that she wrote about so extensively.
With county officials denying there were no more than four employees who availed themselves of county generators, at best doing so with the approval of a supervisor, the prosecutor’s office sent several letters to Renna requesting she meet with them immediately to provide the names of the employees she mentioned on her blog.
When Renna failed to respond, she was slapped last week with the subpoena to appear Jan. 11 before the Union County Grand Jury to provide testimony regarding the prosecutor’s investigation into the entire “generatorgate” mess.
Renna immediately filed a court motion to “quash,” or stop the subpoena and appearing before the grand jury, claiming protection under the New Jersey Newsperson’s Shield Law. At issue is whether the activist is protected or not as an actual journalist or member of the press.
By filing the motion, her attorney, Bruce Rosen of McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen and Carvelli, temporarily put the kibosh on Renna having to appear before the grand jury until the matter is heard in court and a decision handed down by a superior court judge.
However, Rosen makes it clear in his motion that because the UCWA has had an active internet website for seven years and Renna has reported weekly on the county in her blog, she should be protected under the state’s Shield Law. That means if the court decides her blogging qualifies Renna as a journalist, she would not have to appear before a grand jury to reveal the names of the county employees she claimed made use of the generators.
In the meantime, Renna has been pleading her case on her blog, insisting she is a journalist in every respect and should be protected by the shield law.
“This case is an important statement that bloggers who are also investigative journalists deserve the identical protection as journalists for traditional media,” she said.
Underlying all this is ongoing animosity that Renna has continued to express toward Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow because of an investigation into MusicFest two years ago that she felt was not thorough enough.
The prosecutor, who delivered his findings on MusicFest in a comprehensive report, found after several months of investigation, that while there were mistakes and omissions made by former county manager George Devanney and vendors involved with the event, none were fraudulent. Renna, however, has continued to bring up the issue on her blog, despite the report that went into great detail regarding the matter.
Whether Renna’s blogging is protected under the Shield Law depends heavily on if her missives are considered part of an “editorial process” and the news media’s right to use confidential sources.
In his motion, Rosen argued that because Renna has been blogging weekly since 2005, her effort is comparable to traditional news outlets, such as newspapers and magazines. Therefore, he said, her writing “falls squarely within the type of news media the Supreme Court of New Jersey has indicated can be protected under the Shield Law.”
Renna, president of the Union County Watchdog Association, claimed on her blog recently that her reporting “has all the attributes of traditional news media and is little different than op-ed columnists or news pages.”
“As a matter of fact, there is more actual reporting going on in this website than in most small newspapers,” she said Jan. 11 in a blog after filing the motion in court.
The attorney said the prosecutor’s subpoena goes directly against the protections offered by the shield law, which he maintained “the courts of this state routinely quash.”
Renna, in a blog entry from Dec. 12, said she would be submitting the information she gathered to the state attorney general’s office, noting the issue “went beyond the prosecutors office protecting high-level county employees but also county police and sheriff’s officers.” She also alluded to the fact that she believed federal funds may have been involved and “this was reported to the FBI.”
Renna said she was prepared to provide the attorney general the list of county employees involved with taking the generators home. In question is whether the court will view Renna as a journalist, but Rosen felt this would not be an issue.
“A person engaged in, connected with, or employed by news media for the purpose of gathering, procuring, transmitting, compiling, editing or disseminating news for the general public,” has the privilege to refuse to disclose their sources to any grand jury or legislative body.
Rosen stressed that if the press was not protected from subpoenas such as the one Renna received, “reporters might be unable or unwilling to research and publish crime stories.”
When asked to comment on the matter, Union County Prosecutor’s Office spokesperson John Holl said Monday that “the prosecutor’s office as a matter of course does not discuss ongoing cases, preferring to keep the integrity of the investigation intact until resolved.”