By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog
Gov. Chris Christie offered 107 minutes of apologies and answers last week in a lengthy news conference aimed at quelling the Bridgegate scandal. The question is whether he has learned a lesson.
Will a contrite New Jersey governor finally be willing to address “Doublegate,” a $245,000 pension abuse implicating his second-in-command, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno?
Or will Christie and company revert to the arrogant ways and bully-boy tactics that put his presidential aspirations and political future in jeopardy?
Doublegate poses direct questions about the ethics, judgment and accountability of both the governor and his lieutenant. It also raises concerns on whether the administration used its power to cover up a possible crime by one of its own.
A summary of the key, fully substantiated facts with links:
- As a county sheriff, Guadagno made false and contradictory statements that enabled her top aide to collect state pension checks in addition to public salary. The impropriety was first revealed by a New Jersey Watchdog investigative report in October 2010.
- Based on available evidence, including records showing Guadagno’s involvement, a state pension board asked authorities in May 2011 to begin a criminal investigation.
- Christie failed to appoint a special prosecutor to conduct the probe. Instead, a conflict-riddled investigation fell to the attorney general’s Division of Criminal Justice, where Guadagno previously had served as deputy director.
- Thirty-two months later, the results of the probe remain a state secret. The Christie entourage has stonewalled inquiries, even refusing to acknowledge whether the investigation is ongoing or completed.
- A New Jersey Watchdog reporter is suing DCJ for records in Mercer County Superior Court. State lawyers are arguing to keep all information about the probe confidential indefinitely.
So has Chris Christie really learned from Bridgegate? Or is he destined to repeat the blunders with Doublegate? Are the media and public ready to hold a popular governor accountable for another abuse of power? Or will Christie soon return to his bombastic brand of politics-as-usual at the Statehouse?
Doublegate began in 2008 when Guadagno was sheriff of Monmouth County. It was the year before she was elected lieutenant governor on the Christie ticket.
Guadagno hired Michael W. Donovan Jr. as “chief of law enforcement division” at a $87,500 annual salary. She announced the appointment in a memo to her staff. The sheriff’s official website identified Donovan as “sheriff’s officer chief,” supervising 115 subordinate officers and 30 civilian employees.
Donovan faced a legal problem. He already was collecting an $85,000 a year state pension as a retired investigator for the county prosecutor when he took the job with Guadagno. While double-dipping often is legal in New Jersey, this case was different.
Since the position of sheriff’s officer chief is covered by the pension system, Donovan should have been required to stop receiving pension benefits, re-enroll in the retirement plan and resume contributions to the pension fund.
Instead, Guadagno changed Donovan’s job title in several documents so her aide could get two checks, not just one, totaling $172,500 a year.
In county payroll records, the oath of office and a news release, Donovan was listed as the sheriff’s “chief warrant officer” — a similar sounding, but low-ranking position that’s not in the pension system. A chief warrant officer is responsible for serving warrants and other legal documents.
However, on Guadagno’s organizational chart, Donovan was listed as chief of law enforcement. The position of chief warrant officer was not on the chart.
While sheriff’s chief, Donovan pocketed $227,000 in checks from PFRS. Since he did not re-enroll in the pension plan, he avoided another $18,000 in contributions. If the state decides Donovan violated pension law, he could be forced to repay $245,000.
Guadagno also risks paying a legal price for her role.
Under state statute, “Any person who shall knowingly make any false statement or shall falsify or permit to be falsified any record or records of this retirement system…shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”
DCJ investigates one of its own
Trustees of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, upset by reports of pension abuses by Donovan and two others, took action.
In May 2011, the PFRS board voted 7-0 to ask DCJ to begin a criminal investigation of Donovan’s double-dipping, along with similar instances involving sheriff’s officers John Dough of Essex County and Harold Gibson of Union County.
“They are performing the duties of a job that should be in the pension system while they’re also pulling a salary out of the pension system,” John Sierchio, then-chair of the PFRS board, told the Star-Ledger. “It’s like a double-whammy … I believe they are playing with titles and defrauding the taxpayers by saying they are doing one job and performing another.”
Given Guadagno’s complicity in the Donovan matter, assigning the case to DCJ created an obvious ethical dilemma.
DCJ reports to the attorney general. The attorney general serves at the pleasure of Christie and sits with Guadagno on the governor’s cabinet. Essentially, one member of Christie’s inner-circle would be in charge of investigating another.
Even worse, Guadagno was DCJ’s deputy director from 1998 to 2001. She supervised some of the DCJ staffers who would handle the Doublegate probe and recommend whether to bring charges.
A legal solution was available. Under Article 5, Section IV, Paragraph 5 of the New Jersey Constitution, Christie has the authority to order an independent investigation of state officials in the executive branch.
There also was a precedent. In 2006, Gov. Jon Corzine appointed a special prosecutor to investigate ethics allegations against Attorney General Zulima Farber. That led to a chain of events culminating in Farber’s resignation.
Christie did not take action. The former U.S. attorney, an expert in both law and ethics, has never publicly explained whether he even considered naming a special prosecutor to conduct such a sensitive inquiry.
Since then, Christie and a succession of attorneys general have avoided any comment about the DCJ probe. The public has been left in the dark on what the investigation found, and whether the case is open or closed.
Investigating the state’s investigation
Did DCJ seriously investigate Doublegate? Or was it a ruse state officials used as legal cover while sweeping a budding scandal under the gubernatorial rug?
In an effort to hold DCJ accountable, a reporter sued the agency in September under the state Open Public Records Act.
In Mercer County Superior Court’s Appellate Division, Judge Mary C. Jacobson ruled DCJ’s criminal investigative files are exempt from disclosure under OPRA.
But in a major setback for the Christie administration, the judge rejected the state’s request to dismiss the reporter’s common-law claim for the documents.
To prevail under common-law, a requestor is required to show that the public interest in release of the records outweighs the state’s interest in keeping the information confidential.
“The public has an indisputable and overriding interest in knowing about the integrity of government and the conduct of elected officials in their governance,” stated the reporter in a certification filed with the court.
The state countered with a certification from Anthony A. Picione, a deputy attorney general in charge of DCJ’s Corruption Bureau.
Picione stated that records of corruption investigations generally should be kept confidential to “protect the identity of informants” and to “protect those alleged to have committed corruption-related offenses from being prejudged merely because allegations have been made against them.”
Jacobson ordered DCJ to produce a Vaughn index describing the records in its case file. The parties in the case are arguing whether the index and documents should be publicly released.
“The ‘lengthy investigation’ conducted was not really an investigation of substance, but an action undertaken so that the label of ‘criminal investigatory record’ could be used to shroud these materials,” argued attorney Donald M. Doherty in a brief on behalf of the reporter.
The court of oublic opinion
Behind the scenes, Christie operatives have tried to discredit the Doublegate reports and stop the story from being circulated by other news outlets.
Last year, one unnamed Christie backer told David Neese of The Trentonian that New Jersey Watchdog’s investigative reporter was “delusional.”
“Maybe it’s kind of like Capt. Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick,” quipped another anonymous source.
Despite such tactics, portions of the story have been reported by several news organizations:
- In 2012, NBCnews.com published “Gov. Christie’s pension issue: N.J. probe looks at running mate, double dipping.”
- The Star-Ledger’s Paul Mulshine focused on Guadagno’s Doublegate role in several columns, including “The scoop on the double-dipping sheriff’s officer.”
- The legal battle over records of the DCJ investigation has been notably covered by The Trentonian, Philly.com and WWOR-TV’s “Chasing New Jersey.”
After ducking questions for more than three years, Gaudagno tried to deflect the issue in an interview with Associated Press during the last year’s election campaign. She claimed she did taxpayers a favor by hiring Donovan.
“It saved the taxpayers of Monmouth County $50,000 for the year, put a uniformed officer on the street, put a well-qualified retired law enforcement officer in his place,” Guadagno told AP.
In reality, Guadagno’s move cost county taxpayers $77,000 a year since it added a new position to the sheriff’s payroll, a New Jersey Watchdog analysis found.
It also cost the state pension system $227,000 in retirement checks that shouldn’t have been paid to Donovan plus $18,000 in contributions he never made to the fund.
DISCLOSURE: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff in public records cases against DCJ (Mercer Co. Superior Court, MER-L-464-13) and Treasury (OAL GRC 6985-13 & GRC 2011-110).