Watchdog denied records from ‘generatorgate’

UNION COUNTY — Although a local watchdog group sued the county to get a copy of a prosecutor’s investigative report into unauthorized generator use by employees after superstorm Sandy, a superior court judge refused access last week. However, somehow this group managed to get a copy of the report anyway.

The issue of who took home county-owned generators, following the Oct. 29, 2012 storm that left Union County residents without power for up to 12 days, is a dead issue as far as Union County Superior Court Judge Lisa Chrystal is concerned. Chrystal ruled Jan. 6 that the release of the report completed by Union County Police Lt. James Russo before all hearings concluded “may have a negative effect upon the proceedings.”

“Plaintiff is a reporter seeking information for publication,” Chrystal said in her ruling, adding that although Union County Watchdog President Tina Renna made an Open Public Records request 11 days after the criminal investigation was completed, administrative hearings were still ongoing. The superior court judge also mentioned the prosecutor’s report was kept confidential and only the county manager and legal counsel reviewed the report.

Unknown is how Renna gained access to a copy of the prosecutor’s report if it was kept confidential.
In the complaint, legal counsel for the prosecutor’s office argued employees involved had an interest in non-disclosure of the report to fully maintain their “due process rights.” On the other hand, Renna maintained she has the right to this report because she is a citizen “acting on behalf of the Union County Watchdog Association, which seeks to shed light on alleged Union County misconduct,” according to Chrystal’s ruling.

Chrystal said witnesses required to testify in the future may be less likely to cooperate with the county if they felt information they told the prosecutor’s office would be released to the public. For that reason, Chrystal said Renna, a Cranford resident, was not entitled to see the full investigative report.

According to a post on the association’s blog Jan. 9, even though Renna managed to get a copy of Russo’s report from one of her sources, an appeal was still being considered.

“We will also continue to pursue all of the records involved in Generatorgate again in the future … again and again and again … because it’s an opportunity to remind you that the prosecutor’s office, now under Acting Prosecutor Grace Park, is trying to keep this report from the public,” she added.

Specifically, Renna, in her court complaint, also took shots at the county. She said public records she obtained indicated that even though county employees took home generators, the county later paid $42,892.30 to rent and purchase 27 new generators. This information was backed up by county invoices Renna obtained through the Open Public Records Act, court documents indicated. She questioned why the county would purchase or rent additional generators if the ones on hand were not being used in the first place.

LocalSource contacted Mark Spivey Director of Communications for the Union County Prosecutor’s Office regarding issues posed by Renna in court documents as well as Renna’s statements on the County Watcher’s blog. While the prosecutor did not respond directly to these questions, they did provide a statement late Monday.

“The Union County Prosecutor’s Office is pleased with Judge Chrystal’s decision in this matter, which we believe is in accordance with the law. We have no further comment,” the statement read.
Renna also claimed on the local blog that the only reason the investigative report into county employee generator use was being withheld from the public was because former prosecutor Ted Romankow had a “personal political vendetta” against her.
The former prosecutor left June 17, 2013, after Gov. Chris Christie did not reappoint him to the position. Park took over immediately and has remained mum on the issue of what took place involving the use of generators by county employees and Russo’s report. To date there has been no formal statement from her office or any indication Romankow has any input on issues he previously dealt with as prosecutor.
The superior court judge pointed out the prosecutor’s office did not want the investigation report released because of the strategy used to obtain information was based on Russo’s training and experience in criminal investigations, which could be compromised. Releasing the report, Russo told the court, “would be detrimental to the state’s interest in bringing individual responsibility for criminal activity to justice and would also impede law enforcement in protecting the public and community.”

The watchdog president said Russo’s report told the story of “what was done and not done,” when it came to the investigation into who took the county-owned generators home for personal use. The generators involved were not small by any means. In fact, many of the generators in question cost between $5,000 and $15,000 and are unable to be moved without a trailer.

Renna seemed particularly disturbed by the fact Russo’s investigation found county employees only “borrowed” these generators, returning them in good condition after the storm when they no longer were needed. Russo also maintained that confidentiality of his report was critical. Chrystal agreed with that in her ruling.

Despite this, Renna had her own conclusions about the investigation after hearing Chrystal’s decision. She said on the County Watcher’s blog that the prosecutor’s office only interviewed employees, but failed to seek an accounting of county-owned generators or look into why the county had to purchase more generators after the storm. She also claimed the county did not have an emergency plan in place despite incurring heavy damages by Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011.

Union County Public Information Director Sebastian D’Elia responded to that charge Monday.
“Every county in the state is required to have an Emergency Operation Plan in place,” he said, adding that the county had such a plan prior to superstorm Sandy.

According to other New Jersey state statutes, if anyone tried to obtain a copy of the Emergency Operation Plan using the Open Public Records Act, access would be denied because it involves Homeland Security.
Homeland Security documents are not accessible under the OPRA law.

Renna and the prosecutor’s office became embroiled in the generator issue in November 2012 when the Cranford resident wrote on her blog, County Watchers, that she had a list of 16 to 20 names of county employees who took home generators for personal use following the storm. Renna proceeded to blast the prosecutor’s office for dragging their feet on an inquiry into the matter, which was ordered by the Union County Freeholder Board and County Manager Al Faella.

After the prosecutor’s office tried unsuccessfully to get Renna to hand over the names of these employees, she was subpoenaed to come before the grand jury and reveal the names.

In turn Renna hired an attorney who filed a motion to quash the subpoena, using the New Jersey Newsperson’s Shield Law, one of the strongest in the nation. What followed was several court hearings in which Renna spent two days on the stand defending her role as a journalist.

In April Renna was granted protection under the Shield Law by Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy. Although Romankow did not appeal the decision, he did point out that the only reason he subpoenaed the Cranford resident was to obtain the names, if she had them.
“We could care less who her sources are. We care about solving crime. That is our sworn duty,” Romankow said at the time.

Following that, sources indicated there was a cover-up at the county level because the list of offenders went high up in the public safety and emergency management personnel employee roster. These sources also indicated the list of names included department heads and employees in the Department of Public Safety, including Division of Police, Sheriff’s office, Division of Facilities Management and administration services.