Watchdog suing county over generator ‘inquiry’

File Photo Tina Renna is questioned on the witness stand by Assistant Prosecutor Robert Vanderstreet of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office during a hearing to determine if the blogger would be covered by New Jersey’s Shield Law. The blogger is now sueing the county for documents related to the investigation of generators being misused following superstorm Sandy.
File Photo
Tina Renna is questioned on the witness stand by Assistant Prosecutor Robert Vanderstreet of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office during a hearing to determine if the blogger would be covered by New Jersey’s Shield Law. The blogger is now sueing the county for documents related to the investigation of generators being misused following superstorm Sandy.

UNION COUNTY — The president of a watchdog group is sueing the county in order to gain access to the prosecutor’s report on improper generator use by employees after superstorm Sandy knocked out power in the area.In the lawsuit, Tina Renna, president of the Union County Watchdog Association, claimed she was denied access to the report on July 17 by the county after submitting an Open Public Records Act request June 21. According to the complaint, which was obtained by LocalSource, the report by the prosecutor’s office concluded a seven month inquiry into the illegal use of generators by county employees.The county, noted Renna’s attorney Walter Luers in the Superior Court complaint filed Sept. 2, claimed the report was a “criminal investigatory record,” which does not have to be released under the OPRA law.

Renna did not agree.In a statement to the court Renna explained that former first assistant Albert Cernadas Jr. told the freeholder board at a public meeting no charges were brought against county employees that took home generators because there was no evidence they intended to keep the generators permanently and therefore “it is not a criminal matter.” The activist also maintained in the complaint that she had information county employees involved with taking home the generators for personal use “are being offered deals to accept punishment packages.”The Cranford resident is asking the court to provide the names of all the individuals who took home the county-owned generators, in addition to employee titles, circumstances of the incidents and the prosecutor’s analysis of what transpired so she can understand at what point it was decided taking the generators was not a criminal matter or official misconduct.

Renna said on her blog Sept. 3 that a report prepared by the prosecutor is not a personnel record, which is handled by the county human resources department or administration.

“The privacy interest of disciplined public employees and officials do not outweigh the public’s right to know which of them were allowed access to emergency equipment for personal comfort when tens of thousands of Union County residents suffered,” Renna said in her complaint, adding that the lives of residents were put in danger when generators that could have powered traffic lights at major intersections, pharmacies, clinics, shelters, food pantries and other public services, were being used to power county employee homes.

Monday prosecutor office spokesperson Mark Spivey said the prosecutor would not be commenting on the lawsuit, referring the issue entirely over to the county. Union County Communications Director Sebastian D’Elia said Monday the county had not received the lawsuit as of yet but would not be commenting on it when they did.
At a public meeting in August County Manager Al Faella did comment on the prosecutor’s report, saying “We have thoroughly reviewed the prosecutor’s report, conducted our own administrative review and, to the extent necessary, administrative investigations, and we have taken what we believe to be appropriate administrative actions.”

The generator issue first surfaced in November when Renna posted an article on the County Watchers blog saying she had the names of 16 to 20 county employees who took home generators for personal use immediately following the superstorm that knocked out power to most of the state for 12 days.

Following this revelation, the Union County Freeholder Board asked the prosecutor to launch what they termed “an inquiry” into the allegations made by Renna. The word “investigation” was never mentioned and in fact, Romankow said many times in interviews with LocalSource the issue was not considered criminal and his office was merely looking into the matter to see what took place.

In early March things became more heated when Romankow tried to get Renna to hand over the names of these employees and she flatly refused. In turn the prosecutor’s office slapped the blogger with a subpoena to appear before the grand jury, but she sought to quash the motion, claiming she was a journalist and protected under the New Jersey Shield Law. The shield law, one of the strongest in the nation, protects journalist’s First Amendment right not to testify about how a story was obtained or reveal the names of sources.

Complicating things even further was whether Renna could be called a journalist, or merely a blogger. In early March Renna went head-to-head with the prosecutor’s office in a grueling three-day courtroom showdown to prove she deserved the title of journalist and won. In June, after hearing Gov. Chris Christie was not reappointing him after 11 years as prosecutor and Grace Park would be stepping in as acting prosecutor on June 17, Romankow issued his final report on the inquiry into “generatorgate.”

At the time the former prosecutor made it clear in an interview with LocalSource that his office found “no criminal wrongdoing” and nothing was done illegally. The entire matter, he said, was handed over to County Manager Al Faella for “administrative action,” but the county put up a wall when it came to releasing any information, especially the names of the employees involved.

Although LocalSource filed an OPRA request in June to obtain the report by the prosecutor’s office along with any information about the manner in which employees involved were disciplined, it was denied because the information was considered to be related to “personnel.” Renna, who filed a similar OPRA request, was also denied access and eventually filed the Superior Court complaint as a result. Luers, in his motion to the court, explained the OPRA laws clearly state “government records shall be readily accessible for inspection, copying or examination by citizens of this state.” He went on to point out the Supreme Court has said in the past “those who enacted OPRA understood that knowledge is power in a democracy and without access to information contained in records maintained by public agencies, citizens cannot monitor the operation of our government or hold public officials accountable for their actions.”

The attorney further suggested that claims by the county that the report the prosecutor completed was a criminal investigatory record was not true because Romankow said publicly multiple times that no crime occurred. He offered as evidence the minutes of the June 13 freeholder meeting in which Romankow concluded his office’s investigation into the matter was “not a criminal matter.” And, since the prosecutor did not recommend civil or workplace punishments, such as loss of pay, the report “cannot reasonably be interpreted as a personnel record.”

Luers also mentioned that should the court deny access to all or portions of the prosecutor’s report requested by Renna under the OPRA law, the court could grant access under the “common law right of access.”

“Nothing contained in OPRA shall be construed as limiting the common law right of access to government record, including criminal investigatory records of a law enforcement agency,” the attorney said.

Common law public records “include almost every document recorded, generated or produced by public officials whether or not required by law to be made, maintained or kept on file,” Luers said in the court complaint. Finally, the attorney stressed one important fact, which is that the prosecutor’s investigation was closed.
“Where there is a real need to deny access where there is an ongoing law enforcement investigation, or where the protection of witness information or a witness’s identity is at stake, the same values do not survive a balancing after the investigation is closed,” he concluded.

LocalSource published articles extensively about the issue of county employees taking home the generators for personal use, reporting in the May 16 issue that sources had provided the names of at least ten county employees who allegedly took home generators during and after the storm. Because there was no confirmation that these employees actually took home the generators valued between $8,000 and $15,000 each, this newspaper opted not to publish the names at that time. Later in the month, that changed when the prosecutor received an anonymous letter with an unknown number of employee’s names.

A source at the prosecutor’s office later confirmed the names LocalSource had were on the list and in the June 20 edition an article revealed that among the employees was Chief Daniel Vaniska from the Division of Police, Director of Facilities Management Neil Palmieri and county jail employee Rich Purchell, who recently challenged Sheriff Ralph Froehlich in the primary and lost.

Although Froehlich would not confirm that one of his employees at the time, Barry Miglore, a veteran captain with 30 years employment with the department, took home a smaller generator for personal use, another department employee verified that he did. This also was confirmed by multiple sources at the county level. Shortly afterward Miglore retired from the department.