UNION COUNTY — Last Friday, April 12, Union County Watchdog president, activist and blogger Tina Renna was effectively given the title of journalist by Union County Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy.
The 21-page decision legally gave Renna all the protective benefits provided by the New Jersey Newspersons Shield Law, one of the strongest of its kind in the nation.
That means the blogger and founder of the Union County Watchdog Association will not have to go before a grand jury to reveal the names of the county employees she claims on her website to have as having taken home county-owned generators for personal use in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, as the Prosecutor’s Office wanted.
In her blog, the day Cassidy’s ruling came down, Renna’s headline on a post she authored noted “Renna is a journalist — Prosecutor Romankow’s political vendetta fails.”
Renna also pointed out that the court ruling made her “the first blogger in New Jersey history to be deemed protected by New Jersey Newsperson’s Shield Law,” adding that an important precedent had been set.
The citizen activist also did not hold back on how she felt about the Prosecutor’s Office, who subpoenaed her to appear before a grand jury.
“It isn’t my job to be an arm of law enforcement. I did my job as a journalist and reported what I knew. The prosecutor has known of at least four employees who took home generators during Superstorm Sandy and has done nothing to date to charge these offenders with a crime or even reprimand them, while he spent countless resources harassing me,” Renna said on her blog.
The prosecutor, on the other hand was equally as open, explaining his take on the decision by Cassidy.
“The ones who really lose today are the people of Union County. Renna, a self-proclaimed ‘watchdog,’ thwarted the power of a grand jury — a body composed of citizens that acts on behalf of citizens. Let it be remembered that Renna chose to hide rather than help. This is a stark contrast to her frequent proclamations that she seeks to root out corruption,” said Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow.
He also added how he felt about why Renna choose to evoke the New Jersey Shield Law.
“Personally, I believe she was caught in a lie and chose to waste time and money by hiding,” he said, adding “I have great respect for the freedom and speech of the press and believe that a real journalist would have long ago released honest information.”
Romankow further explained why his office pursued this case in the first place.
“For the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, this issue has always been about the investigation into generator usage during and after Superstorm Sandy. For months Renna claimed that she had the names of people who abused the system — a number far greater than what investigators had uncovered. This case was never about revealing the source of the information she claims to have, but rather to the truth of what happened,” the prosecutor said.
“Rather than acting responsibly, or in the public’s best interest, or publishing the names as she asserted she would, Renna hid behind the court and now she should be considered complicit in harboring the very people she believes committed misdeeds,” Romanko said.
The prosecutor’s office has said they are considering an appeal of the judgement.
Renna’s attorney, Bruce Rosen, in a telephone interview Friday, April 12, defended Renna.
“Being a citizen watchdog and journalist are not mutually exclusive,” he said, adding “this fortunately or unfortunately is the future of journalism.”
Rosen explained that while many journalists might cringe at the ruling, they actually should be grateful.
“I don’t think any journalist should be upset. They have nothing to fear because this ruling is for those who fill the gap,” Renna’s attorney said, adding that Renna “is not your average news reporter but the court said she has enough of those attributes to get Shield-Law protection.”
Rosen also responded to the prosecutor’s response to the ruling, pointing out that his quest to get Renna to reveal the names of the employees who took home generators was “a political vendetta to silence her.”
Renna’s attorney said he and his client had no choice but to “draw the line and go beyond the line to show she was a journalist.”
“This was about more than 16 names of employees. This was a full frontal attack from the Prosecutor’s Office to silence
her,” Rosen said, adding “she had to draw the line and she did.”
Cassidy explained away every point brought up by prosecuting attorney Robert Vanderstreet during the two-day hearing held Feb. 28 and March 1, focusing much of her decision on whether Renna’s work since 2005 was indeed that of a journalist. She noted that the courts had yet to determine whether a blog meets the test of protection under the New Jersey Shield Law, finding that Renna, in fact, did provide in-depth coverage of county news.
“While it is also evident that Ms. Renna’s posts often devolve into ad hominem attacks characterizing county employees as ‘psychopaths’ and ‘Nazis,’ prior to this point, the courts have not limited the protection to claimants who consistently and exclusively author newsworthy writings, or only to those who uphold certain journalistic standards in their writing and conduct,” the Superior Court judge ruled.
Cassidy also mentioned that after reviewing Renna’s website and numerous blog posts, it was clear that she and the two or three other bloggers “in fact authored posts about alleged occurrences and issues related to Union County governance and politics not covered by other media sources.
“As pointed out during argument,” Cassidy continued, “most local publications no longer provide in-depth coverage of county news,” adding that “local newspapers show a lack of detail on, for example, freeholder meetings and actions taken by local government.”
The judge did admit that while the quality of Renna’s writing was not that of a print reporter, a previous New Jersey ruling on a similar case called Too Much Media, LLC vs. Hale made it clear the courts have not limited Shield Law protection to those who only uphold journalistic standards in their writing and conduct.
Cassidy mentioned that in a previous New Jersey case, the court pointed out that maintaining particular credentials or adhering to certain professional standards of journalism, like disclosing conflicts of interest or note taking, are not required by the Shield Law.
Although the Prosecutor’s Office brought up during the hearing that Renna had no real connection to a print medium, as required by the New Jersey Shield Law, Cassidy found that because Renna wrote so many blog posts since 2005, and the number of hours she spent investigating and preparing these articles were, “arguably newsworthy and therefore constitute news under the state statute.”
Oddly, Cassidy did not go into the fact that Renna’s husband, Joe, not only worked for the county and was fired, but ran as an independent candidate for a freeholder seat several times. Or how that might have affected Renna’s intent on her blog.
Finally, Cassidy pointed out that while the Legislature is free to expand the law’s coverage as a matter of policy, until they do the court was simply interpreting an existing and far-reaching statute.
Renna, 51, sought protection under the Shield Law in order to quash a subpoena served on her by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office in January, which would have forced her to reveal the 16 to 20 county employees who took home portable generators immediately after the Superstorm Sandy power outage in October.
Renna, whose blog site County Watchers was founded in 2005, first wrote about the generator issue in late November, criticizing the Prosecutor’s Office for not being able to uncover the names of the 16 to 20 employees on their own. After reading Renna had the names of additional employees, prosecutors tried to get her to cooperate, but she refused to cooperate.
The Prosecutor’s Office then slapped Renna with a subpoena to appear before a grand jury to reveal the names of the employees, whose salaries were listed on her blog. Renna’s attorney immediately filed a quash order with the court, pointing out that as a journalist, she deserved protection under the Shield Law so she did not have to reveal anything she obtained through news gathering. Critical here was the fact that neither prosecutors nor Romanko reportedly ever asked Renna to reveal her sources, merely the names of the employees she knew about.
In an interview with LocalSource in January, Romankow said he never asked for Renna’s sources, only the names of the employees. He also doubted she had any names of employees. The Shield Law specifically protects journalists and reporters from having to reveal how a story was obtained or the names of sources. Ironically, it has been Renna, a persistent advocate of open government, who continually berated the county since 2005 for not revealing information to the public.
Now it seems the courts have given Renna the right to do just the same.