UNION COUNTY — The war of words between blogger Tina Renna and the Union County Prosecutor’s Office intensified last week as both took defensive stands prior to a court hearing today to determine if the blogger has to reveal information she knows to a grand jury.
In late November when Renna posted on the Union County Watchdogs blog that she had the names of 16 to 20 county employees who took home generators for personal use right after Superstorm Sandy, it opened a legal can of worms for both the prosecutor and blogger.
Renna, a strong advocate for transparency in county government, has been digging up a plethora of county misdeeds since 2005 and posting them on the UCW blog.
Renna’s efforts have brought more transparency to county government, and although she has continued to advocate the importance of open government, when it came down to revealing the names of the county employees who made use of the generators at taxpayer’s expense, Renna refused to talk.
The Prosecutor’s Office then turned around and slapped Renna with a subpoena to appear before the grand jury to testify about everything she knows. From that point things became even more legally complex, time consuming and much further from being resolved.
In an interview with LocalSource Friday, Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow said he found Renna’s behavior to be very telling.
“She doesn’t have any names,” the prosecutor said, adding “it is hypocritical for someone who advocates transparency in government not to cooperate.”
Romankow said he never asked for Renna’s sources, just the names of the county employees she admitted to having on her blog.
“How can you on one hand tell us we should be investigating this and then turn around and not give us the names?” the prosecutor asked, admitting all of this has been a diversion keeping prosecutors from working on actual criminal cases.
“I’m not after her sources. I just want the names of the employees and I will personally take those names to the state attorney general,” Romankow said.
After receiving the subpoena, the blogger asked the court to grant her protection under the state Newspersons Shield Law so she cannot be forced to reveal what she knows to the Prosecutor’s Office.
The New Jersey Shield Law requires claimants show a connection to news media, a purpose to gather, procure, transmit, edit or disseminate news and that the materials were obtained in the course of pursuing professional news gathering.
Whether Renna actually is covered under this law as a journalist hangs in the balance until Superior Court Judge Karen M. Cassidy hears the blogger’s motion to “quash,” or throw out, the prosecutor’s subpoena today.
However, both Renna’s legal counsel, Bruce Rosen, and the Prosecutor’s Office are well prepared for the legal battle ahead. Neither have left a stone unturned when it came to ensuring a judgement in their favor.
With sizzling court motions and briefs flying back and forth last week, both not only used case law to bolster their case, but leveled strong accusations toward the opposition.
The prosecutor’s 48-page court brief, filed Jan. 18 and obtained by LocalSource claimed the activist fell short of “anything approaching news media.” Instead, prosecutors said Renna “is a political activist masquerading as a government watchdog.”
They contended Renna failed to get comments from the other side of the issue, failed to identify sources when able, failed to correct mistakes and her blog is “riddled with profanities, slurs and personal attacks.”
On the other hand, Renna’s counsel accused the prosecutor’s office of using “outrageously shrill whining” about the way the blogger went about getting news and keeping the county accountable.
Rosen pointed out it is the media’s purpose to “report, investigate and even castigate government officials,” and be a check on one-party government.”
“This role — reporting and commentary on government — is at the heart of the First Amendment,” Renna’s attorney stressed in a rebuttal to the prosecutor’s initial brief, adding this is the very reason the blogger has been successful at what she does.
But the prosecutor pointed out that Renna’s “true motives become more transparent” when her husband’s history with the county are revealed, as well as her own.
For example, prosecutor’s brought out in their court brief that Renna’s husband, Joseph, was once employed by the county and the blogger herself sold advertising space in county publications and newsletters during his tenure there, including selling ads for the Union County Alliance newsletter, Union County Directions. This is the same organization she later blasted on her blog for not being forthcoming about where taxpayer dollars were being spent.
Prosecutors also said it was ironic that while Renna profited financially from her husband’s employment by the county, after he lost his job she turned around and berated his former employers for allowing rampant nepotism.
They also revealed that in 2005, a year after her husband was terminated from his employment with the county, Renna founded the watchdog organization “to monitor and demand accountability from the same Democrat controlled Union County government with whom she had no quarrel until her husband was terminated.”
“Indeed her background is rife with conflicts of interest,” they said, which is in direct violation of journalistic standards.
Rosen, however, strongly disagreed, saying that political figures go in and out of journalism, but “that does not make them any less qualified as journalists when they function as journalists.”
To further support why Renna should not receive protection under the shield law, prosecutors accused the blogger of not being able to distinguish between advocacy and news reporting.
They said her repeated attacks on the freeholders and county manager during freeholder meetings were particularly revealing.
“Given the rancor of her posts and rants at freeholder meetings, it is clear Ms. Renna is a political activist with an axe to grind against the Democrat-controlled government of Union County,” prosecutors said.
Rosen countered saying that this was “meaningless,” because news people appear regularly at colleges and on television, in debates, taking strong positions.
He said what actually matters is that when the court looks at her writing, whether recent columns or articles at issue now “they will see real investigative reporting.”
Prosecutors, however, disagreed.
“Though she does gather information, her purpose is not to disseminate that information but rather to marshall the information she obtains for use in her politically-motivated lawsuits,” prosecutors said in their brief.
Prosecutor’s also pointed out that Renna does not even see herself as a journalist and this was supported in a blog post Renna made entitled “Union County Prosecutor’s Office — I’m not an idiot.”
In the post Renna specifically drew a distinction between her work and that of journalists, remarking “I am a government watchdog and we need to report things differently.”
“Clearly,” prosecutors pointed out, “Ms. Renna neither acts nor sees herself as a journalist.” They said the blogger only seeks that designation now in order to avoid answering to a subpoena issued by an office she personally dislikes.
“It is clear that the legislature did not intend to bestow the reporter’s shield on one who gathers information for the purposes of vanquishing political enemies and waging legal battles,” they said, adding if this was true, “then every self-appointed newsperson and anyone with a Facebook account could do so.”
Renna’s attorney, however, felt the prosecutor’s office was way off base when it came to determining who exactly was a journalist, calling the prosecutor’s opposition “a red herring,” or a distraction from the real issue at hand.
“The Shield law does not require that a publication be objective, or that it be nice to politicians, or that it self-promote,” Rosen said in his rebuttal brief, noting, for instance, that every publication points out that they were the originators of an investigative story. As far as partisanship being an obstacle to Renna calling herself a journalist, Rosen said “the state is woefully misguided.”
“Our press has a long history of partisanship, beginning with Federalist newspapers at the nation’s founding, to pro-and anti-slavery newspapers, investigating Watergate, or opposing the Vietnam and Gulf wars,” the attorney said, “There is no rule in the first amendment or the shield law that a particular news media must be objective and there is plenty of case law setting forth that conflicts cannot decide what constitutes news as opposed to information that appears to entertain,” Rosen added.