New Jersey Transparency Center/YourMoney.NJ.Gov: This website is operated by the State of New Jersey and provides volume of data about State agencies and authorities. Want to know how much a certain state employee earns? You can look it up here, along it budgets, purchasing records, pension records, and more.
OPRAMachine.com: You can use this website to file directly to State, County, and local government agencies. The request will be posted on OPRA Machine, as well the agency’s response to your request. It is a great resource for tracking your requests and to help others see the data without having to file their own requests. If you want to file records requests in other states or with the federal government, you might want to check out a similar resource, MuckRock.
NJ Open Government Blog: This blog is operated by John Paff, a well-known transparency and open government advocate in New Jersey. Mr. Paff frequently blogs about recent OPRA lawsuits and judicial opinions. You might also find his other blog, NJ Civil Settlements, helpful. There, he posts about settlement agreements that government agencies have entered into, often resulting in a significant expenditure of tax dollars.
The Force Report: Want to know how many times the police officers in your town used physical force against another person and whether there were any racial disparities in the use of force? This database by NJ.com provides several years of data and is easy to navigate.
Protecting the Shield: Reporters from the Asbury Park Press spent two years working on this brilliant investigative series “to expose the deadly price the public pays when known bad cops remain on the streets.”
PSWH Partner CJ Griffin is quoted in the article and discusses the potential liability both a public agency and its records custodian (or other employees) could face for violating OPRA.
Most OPRA cases involve an “ordinary” denial of access that occurred for one reason or the other. It may be that the records custodian or person responding to the OPRA request applied the law incorrectly or that the law was unclear as to whether a record is exempt or not. A records requestor has a right to challenge such a denial and if the court agrees that the response was unlawful, the remedy is that the court will order the record to be released and require the public agency to pay the requestor’s reasonable attorneys’ fees. No public employee personally pays these attorneys’ fees, even if they were the ones who came to the wrong conclusion to withhold a government record from public access.
Beyond the “ordinary” OPRA case, a requestor can seek personal penalties against the records custodian or person responding to the OPRA request. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-11(a):
“[a] public official, officer, employee or custodian who knowingly and willfully violates [OPRA] . . . and is found to have unreasonably denied access under the totality of the circumstances, shall be subject to a civil penalty of $1,000 for an initial violation, $2,500 for a second violation that occurs within 10 years of an initial violation, and $5,000 for a third violation that occurs within 10 years of an initial violation.”
The fine is imposed upon the public official, officer, employee or custodian personally and the agency does not pay this fine.
What constitutes a knowing and willful violation of OPRA? There is not a lot of case law on this, but it is clear that in order for the denial to be considered willful the person responding to the request must have actual knowledge that their actions are unlawful.
On Tuesday, March 12, 2019 at 7 p.m., PSWH Partner CJ Griffin will celebrate Sunshine Week by giving a free OPRA presentation at the Nutley Public Library. Come learn the nuts and bolts of filing an OPRA request so that you can make sure your town is transparent!
The Trentonianpublished an editorial on January 15, 2019, calling for Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora’s administration to be more transparent. The editorial discusses a lawsuit filed on the newspaper’s behalf by CJ Griffin, a Partner at Pashman Stein Walder Hayden and Editor of the NJ OPRA Blog. Griffin, who is quoted in the editorial, sued for the newspaper to obtain access to a body camera recording which would confirm whether the Mayor’s Chief of Staff had falsely accused one of the Trentonian‘s reporters of stealing documents from his office. To read the editorial, learn about the litigation, and view the body camera recording, click here.
Unlike dash camera recordings, body camera recordings are “required by law to be made, maintained, or kept on file” pursuant to Attorney General Directive 2015-1 and thus they cannot be exempt under OPRA’s criminal investigatory records exemption.
In September 2018, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of long-time client Steven Wronko seeking the list of users that Carteret Mayor Daniel J. Reiman has banned from his Facebook page.
Carteret opposed the lawsuit, arguing that Mayor Reiman’s Facebook page was simply a personal page and that he has constitutional right to ban members of the public and a privacy interest in keeping the ban list secret.
We responded and provided over 200 pages of screenshots from the Mayor’s Facebook page which showed that Mayor Reiman used his Facebook page to declare weather emergencies and keep the public informed during severe weather events; to talk about redevelopment projects happening in the Borough; and to discuss personnel issues, such as the suspension of a police officer. We also showed that residents frequently posted on the Page about issues they were having with government services and Mayor Reiman or “staff” would respond to those inquiries and try to resolve the issues. Our brief is available here.
On January 11, 2019, the Honorable Alberto Rivas, A.J.S.C., heard oral arguments and found that Mayor Reiman’s Facebook page is subject to OPRA because it is used to conduct the Mayor’s official business. He adopted the fact-sensitive analysis used by Judge Mizdol in Larkin v. Glen Rock, a similar case we won last year.
Judge Rivas ordered Carteret to produce the ban list and to pay Mr. Wronko’s legal fees. A copy of the Order is here.
Many people want to know how they can monitor an agency’s spending and determine how much an agency is paying a certain vendor (such as a law firm, plumber, construction company, or insurance company) or even who the agency’s vendors are. A “Vendor Activity Report” (or “Vendor History Report”) is a very helpful tool for learning this information.
A Vendor Activity/History Report details all payments made to every individual or company that was entered into the agency’s accounting software in order to receive a payment. If a bill is paid, then there is a corresponding “vendor” entry in the accounting software. The Vendor Activity/History Report will list all of the vendors and the total amount of money they were paid during the requested time frame. Once you obtain the report and see something that interests you, then you can you can request the corresponding payment vouchers and bills/invoices for that vendor to further investigate the spending. Requestors have used the Vendor Activity/History Report to identify large reimbursements to the agency’s employees, for example.
Here are a couple examples of Vendor Activity Reports from NJ towns that we found on the Internet, so you can see what they look like and how helpful they can be:
Egg Harbor Township’s Vendor Activity Report, located here, lists all vendors for the designated time frame (2015). This type of report is helpful because you can see the total payments made to every single vendor contained in the agency’s accounting software during a specified time period. If you do not know anything about an agency’s finances or which vendors they use, you can ask for the full vendor activity report and learn who the vendors are and how much they were paid. To request this type of report, one would simply say: “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access, I seek the vendor activity or vendor history report for all vendors by vendor name for payments made January 1, 2018 to present date.”
Eagleswood Township’s Vendor Activity Reports, located here on this OPRA Machine request, provide a breakdown of all payments to an identified vendor during the specified time frame. This type of report is helpful when you know about a vendor already and just want to see how much they were paid during a specific time period. In these reports, the requestor sought the activity report for three specific vendors (newspapers). The reports show all of the payments made to those vendors. To request this type of report, one would simply say: “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access, I seek the vendor activity or vendor history report for all payments made to [Insert Name of Vendor/Company] for January 1, 2018 to present date.”
We filed the first lawsuit of its kind in NJ seeking access to records within Facebook accounts held by public officials and we won.
We made a new relationship with Reclaim The Records and helped them gain access to New Jersey’s Death Index, which they used to create an awesome website for use by genealogists, historians, researchers, and journalists.
“There’s hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, of tax dollars, at stake,” said CJ Griffin, a partner at Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, who argued the case. “That’s taxpayer money. When you give tax breaks, that impacts other people, so the public has a right to know.”
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about OPRA is that there is a very, very short statute of limitations period. This means that if you receive a denial, you need to act very quickly or you may lose your rights to gain access to the record you seek.
What do you do if you receive a denial from an agency or if the agency unlawfully redacts information from government records?
The best course of action is to immediately speak to an attorney, who can work with you to gain access to the records. This frequently requires a lawsuit filed in Superior Court. Again, the most important thing to remember is that your action must be filed within the statute of limitations, which is only 45 calendar days. The process for filing in Superior Court is as follows:
You will sign a retainer agreement with an attorney, who will likely agree to represent you on a fee-shifting basis (meaning, there will be no charge to you–the agency will pay the fees if and when you prevail)
A Verified Complaint and Order to Show Cause is filed. These will be drafted by the requestor’s attorney, though the requestor must sign the complaint to verify it is accurate.
The judge will review and sign the order, which sets for a briefing schedule and a hearing date.
The pleadings are then served upon the public agency and they will submit an opposition brief. Sometimes, an agency may opt to release the records and settle the attorney fee amount rather than proceed with the litigation.
The requestor’s attorney has an opportunity to file a reply brief.
A hearing is held, wherein the judge will hear arguments from both sides. For simple cases, the judge will usually enter a ruling that day. More complex cases may require a little more time for an opinion to issue. The requestor need not be present for the hearing.
If the requestor is declared a prevailing party, the Court will order the agency to pay the requestor’s attorney fees.
Again, the most important thing to remember is that there is a very short timeline for filing the initial Verified Complaint – 45 days from the date your request was denied.
NJ Advance Mediahas written about the recent lawsuit we filed on behalf of Libertarians for Transparent Government seeking a settlement/separation agreement between Cumberland County and a corrections officer who allegedly had inappropriate relationships with inmates. The lawsuit also asks the Court to find that Cumberland County violated OPRA when it told Plaintiff that the corrections officer was “terminated for disciplinary reasons,” when the Pension Board’s meeting minutes state that he was allowed to “retire in good standing.”
PSWH partner CJ Griffin is quoted in the article:
Attorney CJ Griffin, representing the plaintiff, argued that the county has provided a distorted view of Ellis’ case.
“By indicating that Ellis had been terminated for a disciplinary infraction, it leads the public to believe that Ellis paid a price for his admitted misconduct,” the suit states, “In reality, according to the pension board’s minutes, Cumberland County instead allowed him to ‘retire in good standing.'”
The South Jersey Times also published an editorial on the case, arguing that settlement agreements with employees should never be confidential.