Watchdog: You’re barking up the wrong tree

Prosecutor’s Office asks UCWA to throw them a bone; refusal leads to subpoena

File PhotoAfter repeatedly asking Union County Watchdog Tina Renna to provide information regarding ‘generatorgate,’ the Union County Prosecutor’s Office subpoenaed Renna. Renna has made a motion to quash the subpoena claiming protection as a journalist under New Jersey’s Shield Law, which would protect her from having to reveal any information.
File Photo
After repeatedly asking Union County Watchdog Tina Renna to provide information regarding ‘generatorgate,’ the Union County Prosecutor’s Office subpoenaed Renna. Renna has made a motion to quash the subpoena claiming protection as a journalist under New Jersey’s Shield Law, which would protect her from having to reveal any information.

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.”


9 Responses to "Watchdog: You’re barking up the wrong tree"

  1. Michael Pierone   January 17, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    I don’t know who Cheryl Hehl is but she clearly has a bias against Tina. There are very good reasons for Tina not to give the prosecutor the names of those county employees who were her sources. The county government I am sure would like to know who has been blowing the whistle so they can put the kibosh on it. Also I am concerned that the County Prosecutor would use the list of employees to “limit” the number of employees who get charged with any wrong doing to only those that Tina may know of.

    The County Prosecutor has shown in the past that he is unwilling to prosecute. There is no reason to believe that this has changed.

    Of course I can’t help but wonder why the County Prosecutor needs to talk to Tina at all. Isn’t there anyone in the county who is charged with keeping tabs on County equipment? Isn’t there any process for tracking the County’s equipment, like for example a log book? If not then the County Government is guilty of some major negligence of duty.

    I can’t help but notice that the County administration stopped their investigation supposedly because the Prosecutor is conducting one, meanwhile the Prosecutor is spending his time and resources trying to haul Tina into court? Whatever for? Find out who is responsible for tracking the County’s equipment and interview THAT person(s). Find out what procedures are in place to keep track of County inventory, and where the location of that equipment is recorded.

    Is it actually possible that the county doesn’t even have procedures in place to track the equipment paid for by tax payers?

    If there are such procedures and practices in place then the investigation should take all of about an hour. If not then Union County is being poorly run to say the very least.

    Something that Tina Renna has been very busy exposing for years. During this time she has clearly made some enemies. Mostly people who would like very much for her to just go away.

    I think THEY think they can use the Courts to intimidate Tina into doing just that. I also think they are dead wrong. Thank God for Tina Renna. We need more people like her.

    • bruce   January 18, 2013 at 3:11 pm

      Mr Pierone, you are correct in every instance of your post. I am a close supporter of Tina and the UCWA. They have done a fantastic job exposing the waste, abuse, mismanagement, self dealing and possible corruption at union county govt. That musicfest investiagion was a magnificently crafted scam with the end result just like the poltical powers behind the closed door wanted, which was nothing. Coincidentally at least, the county manager, George Devanney, Senator Lesniaks nephew, decided to retire weeks before the investigation was made public. You are right that the prosecutors department is run by incompetancy. That musicfest investigation proved it since they uncovered such waste and failure of proecedure along wtih hidden moneis found 6 months later, that one would think the investiagion would go back to the other years..but it stopped short for some reason (!). In fact it was easily found that $40,000 worth of missing beverage moneis was not even addressed or noted which makes one wonder if that was the payoff to ‘someone” to white wash the investigation.

      Attending union county FH mtgs for 10 years I have seen that for every action the county does has an ulterior agenda behind it. Tina and the UCWA has exposed much of this on thier webiste, time and time again. I wish her well and always financially donate to her watchdogs to defray costs when the call goes out, since they work hard in thier quest with no recompense for better government accountability.

  2. Andrew   January 17, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    Whether you need to address the staff writer or whoever is in charge of checking that the final proof is correct, could an effort be made to ensure that at least the headlines on the front page contain the proper word usage. The correct wording should have been “You’re”, the contraction, instead of “Your”, the possessive.

    • webmaster   January 18, 2013 at 9:54 am

      Andrew you are correct, thank you.

  3. James Buettner   January 20, 2013 at 9:13 am

    There is reporting, editorializing, and propaganda. Unfortunately, this article is pure propaganda. Why don’t you interview your subject and publish the account? I would be interested to see that article.

  4. bruce   January 21, 2013 at 9:44 am

    The serious part of appearing for a subpoena in front of a grand jury is that the prosecutor can ask very probing questions and you have to answer them. Tina is right, that since she and the UCWA are investigative reporters, continually exposing the rampant corrupted system at union county govt, that they do not have to respond to the questions under the veil of the journalistic shield law. The prosecutor who allegedly is a “bought” political hack has a hidden agenda to actually expose the whistleblower within the county govt doing good for the taxpayers and against the corrupted self-entitled govt system; Does one think that the prosecutor would prosecute the politically connected anyway. As observing them for years, one can easily see thier modus operandi of the way they work. If this goes higher up the ladder, i will certainly support the funding it takes to thwart the prosecutors apparant devious and underhanded agenda.

  5. Citizenzwatch   February 6, 2013 at 11:05 am

    Bruce is a member of the Watchdogs go to the website and claims all this corruption in Union County but can’t the AG to listen.The Watchdogs are all members Union County Repubilcan party and is supported financially by the Union county GOP who can’t get elected.

    • bruce paterson   February 7, 2013 at 11:05 am

      c’mon zwatch, dont post patently misleading items, you know i am not a member of the UCWA, plus even if i was I am a democrat so your second sentence would be false. its false anyway becuase the Watchdogs are both dem and gop. Dont be a nuisance by blather, look into things first. This is what would get you tossed off forums.

  6. Jim   February 7, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    Citizenswatch, check your facts before you go off at the mouth. Not all, in fact 3/4 of the UCWA board members are NOT registered Republicans. I for one, am a registered Democrat, who choses to speak out against corruption, nepotism, and pay to play; regardless of party. Prosecutor Romankow’s prosecution of Tina is a blatant effort to get at her inside sources so they can be silenced (fired). Nothing more. Romankow has already set the white wash in motion by stating that the 3 or 4 county employees who he knows took generators “had permission from their bosses”. No more need be said.