Fulop’s JCPD ‘disingenuous’ via Open Public Records Act, Murphy’s NJDOT even worse
The Supreme Court of New Jersey weakened the Open Public Records Act, but the respective Democratic administrations of Mayor Steven Fulop and Governor Phil Murphy are adding insult to injury for government watchdogs.
Jersey City Police Department officer Carlos Melendez caught a tough break when I filed a public records request for dash-camera recordings related to his arrest in Wood-Ridge, NJ. Per the New Jersey Law Journal, as of August 13, 2018, in a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court of New Jersey decided the public does not have an automatic right of access under the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) to police dashcam videos.
A source of many controversial stories in modern America, it seems like those police recordings will rarely surface in New Jersey for the foreseeable future. While Melendez just missed the cut off, journalists will now have to rely solely on honest cops leaking brutality and corruption stories – as was the case with retired JCPD Sgt. John Ransom.
The court’s ruling was not a good turn of events for anyone concerned with transparency in law enforcement, but it’s certainly not the only issue journalists and activists are having with OPRA right now. Speaking for myself, the Democratic administrations of Mayor Steven Fulop and Governor Phil Murphy have essentially been non-responsive to my inquiries related to JCPD off-duty billing of the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT).
The Murphy Administration’s NJDOT
Gov. Murphy has made it clear that he wants to invest more taxpayer dollars into infrastructure and transit projects. While the idea is certainly popular with the general public, it concerns me that the Murphy Administration has struggled to produce JCPD off-duty invoices for the NJDOT.
The first OPRA request, received by the NJDOT on May 1, 2018, asked for the following:
1. All invoices and records of payment from/to City of Jersey City for Off-Duty Police services from 7/1/13-5/1/18.
2. All email/written communications between City of Jersey City employees – specifically Thomas Mahoney, Elise Gibbs and Robert Kakoleski – and DOT officials related to payments and coverage of DOT sites receiving JCPD Off-Duty Police services from 7/1/13-5/1/18.
It took the NJDOT until June 1, 2018, to inform me that my request “will take an extraordinary amount of time and resources to compile, copy, review, redact, and scan in order to provide the records requested. Therefore, it is necessary to assess a special service charge.”
Fair enough. Even though they could’ve told me that in seven business days, no hard feelings for wasting my time. The one positive note, they estimated 22 staff hours were required to fulfill the request at a cost of $799.63.
If anyone is willing to pay that fee, please feel free to file the same request or send me a message. Nevertheless, undeterred by the NJDOT’s excessive fees, I persisted and filed another OPRA request. On June 28, 2018, the NJDOT received my second request which asked for significantly less:
All invoices submitted to the NJ Department of Transportation from 9-1-15 to 3-31-16 by the City of Jersey City for off-duty police services.
Simple enough, right? Forget about the emails asked for in the first request, let’s say it takes 22 staff hours to produce 58 months of invoices. My math could be wrong, but that’s about 23 minutes per month of invoice requested – I’ll round that up to 25 as a professional courtesy.
What I’m trying to say is that, based off the NJDOT’s own estimates it shouldn’t take longer than three hours to fulfill my request. Yet, nearly two months later, I still haven’t received invoices covering the requested time periods from the NJDOT.
The frustrating part is that the state agency admits, as of July 27, 2018, they had “received a portion of the records,” and that they were “still in the process of reviewing the records.” To make matters worse, I don’t have much faith when it comes to anything potentially involving Murphy and the JCPD.
The Fulop Administration’s JCPD
Even though Fulop & Public Safety Director James Shea’s handling of the JCPD’s off-duty jobs program is already worthy of a few medals at the New Jersey Corruption Olympics, the JCPD’s billing practices when it comes to the NJDOT might earn them lifetime achievement awards.
Despite the unnecessary delay by the Fulop Administration’s JCPD & Law Department, I did receive records related to my June 21, 2018, OPRA request asking for:
All invoices submitted to the NJ Department of Transportation from 9-1-15 to 3-31-16 for off-duty police services.
On July 30, 2018, the City of Jersey City provided me with the invoices I was seeking. Below is a sample of one “Corrected Invoice” for JCPD off-duty services billed to the NJDOT.
This is the point where things start getting interesting. On August 8, 2018, I filed the following OPRA request with the Fulop Administration asking for:
Police Off-Duty Citywide Daily Jobs Reports **without the Vendor redacted** from 9-1-15 to 3-31-16.
To the best of my knowledge – based on previous investigations and sources – the JCPD off-duty “Citywide Daily Jobs Report” is the primary document which identifies Date, Hours, Vendor, District, Location, Officer and Supervisor working off-duty jobs on any particular date.
Months of Citywide Daily Jobs Reports have previously been produced by the Fulop Administration and were used in a 2016 Chasing News report by Tamara Laine covering Real Jersey City’s JCPD investigations. VIDEO BELOW (please excuse my face being featured image):
Before seven business days had passed, and given self-imposed time constraints on this website’s future, I decided to proactively reach out to the Fulop Administration. Specifically, I emailed Peter Baker, the city’s corporation counsel, on August 13, 2018, with the following message:
To Mr. Peter J. Baker:
Hope all is well. I’m reaching out to you directly, in your official capacity as Jersey City’s corporation counsel, for information and/or an explanation regarding a potentially troubling story I’ve been researching involving JCPD off-duty billing practices related to the NJDOT.
As a matter of background, many investigations published on my website, RealJerseyCity.com, have been corroborated by federal law enforcement authorities and JCPD Internal Affairs. Furthermore, not only has the city refused to answer any of my inquiries over a 4-year period, Public Safety Director James Shea has apparently instituted an “ignore” policy regarding my questions.
Needless to say, this is not only unfair to me, but the lack of response certainly runs counter to “rooting out corruption” in Jersey City. Regardless, I shall persist, and I hope you will provide integrity and respect on behalf of the Fulop Administration to help properly inform my diverse readership.
As for the potentially troubling story, records obtained by me, Michael Shurin, through sources and the Open Public Records Act, aren’t “adding up” regarding invoices sent to the NJDOT and hours demonstrably scheduled. “Adding up” means the hours billed to the NJDOT don’t seem to match the hours scheduled.
To provide clarity, OPRA R002277-080818 requests – “Police Off-Duty Citywide Daily Jobs Reports **without the Vendor redacted** from 9-1-15 to 3-31-16.”
To the best of my knowledge – based on investigations previously published and sources – the JCPD off-duty “Citywide Daily Jobs Report” is the primary document which identifies Date, Hours, Vendor, District, Location, Officer and Supervisor working off-duty jobs on any particular date.
Mr. Baker, I’m formally requesting your assistance with the following three items:
1. Confirmation or denial regarding whether the statement “the JCPD off-duty “Citywide Daily Jobs Report” is the primary document which identifies Date, Hours, Vendor, District, Location, Officer and Supervisor working off-duty jobs on any particular date” is correct.
2. If that statement is incorrect, please identify what other documents were routinely produced keeping record of off-duty jobs worked – specifically from 9-1-15 to 3-31-16.
3. The off-duty jobs program, or at least how we knew it during the aforementioned time periods, is no longer in existence. In light of that, I’m requesting an expedited response to OPRA R002277-080818. If the city decides to reject that request, in lieu of providing me the records via OPRA, and in the spirit of “rooting out corruption,” I’m asking that the city provide a private viewing of the reports with an intermediary from the City Council present.
Additionally, as a matter of due diligence, I ask that you provide all relevant agreements and correspondences between the City of Jersey City and NJDOT regarding police off-duty security work – especially anything from 9-1-15 to 3-31-16.
Please respond to this message, or have a member of the Law Department, by end of business August 15, 2018.
Shockingly, Mr. Baker, nor anyone else from the city’s Law Department, got back to me by August 15, 2018. Even more troubling than the lack of response is that I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface with my questions regarding the JCPD’s NJDOT off-duty billing.
As for the outstanding OPRA request itself, on August 17, 2018, the Fulop Administration responded that “the City is conducting its search and two additional weeks are needed for processing your request.” I must say, that feels like a very disingenuous response given that those reports can be easily accessed via email storage and have already been partially produced (with redactions).
Below are two examples of the reports I’m seeking – the first with redactions (which were provided by the city), the second are original copies (leaked to Real Jersey City):
Regarding the redactions made by the city, I find two things alarming. One, if these reports posed a legitimate security concern – which they do not – the locations, districts and times should be redacted. The vendor is rather insignificant if there were an actual security issue.
The second thing I find alarming is that the city has already produced off-duty records with vendors included. See below for now-Provisional Deputy Chief Nicola ‘Nic’ Flora:Without going further, Mr. Baker responding to my inquiry can only do two things – quell my concerns or root out corruption. In the same breath, I don’t have time to wait for a response I’m never going to get.
In short, the hours aren’t adding up and days are running out for me to publish some of my findings.
It’s my hope this piece spurs the Murphy Administration to produce invoices I already have, plus any other relevant documents. More importantly, it’s my hope the Fulop Administration also produces documents I already have, plus a full response to the email I sent Mr. Baker.
Yet, given the “ignore” policy instituted by Director Shea, I’m not overly optimistic that I’ll be receiving a meaningful response by the end of the week.
I appreciate that @JC_Gov Public Safety Director James Shea is getting straight to the point, but, for the record, I do write very polite emails to @KimWallaceJC. #JerseyCity pic.twitter.com/VWTJKPs0gf
— Real Jersey City (@RealJerseyCity) March 4, 2018