When Mark Kobner contacted the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office about some curious activities in the county’s sheriff department back in 2008, the tip carried professional weight. Kobner was a retired New York City undercover narcotics officer and had served as Hunterdon County Sheriff Department’s chief warrant officer for three years.
But neither Kobner nor any of the county prosecutors had any idea that it would eventually expose a Bridgegate-like web — one that includes small town shenanigans connecting to statehouse leaders, respected legal professionals getting fired, and a lone lawyer’s quest to find the truth — a quest that came to an end this week with the state agreeing to settle the case with a $1.5 million payment to that lone lawyer, Bennett Barlyn.
At first it all seemed clear. Sheriff Deborah Trout, newly elected to the $102,000 a year post, was accused of hiring friends, failing to conduct proper background checks, requiring new employees to sign loyalty oaths, and handing out false law enforcement identification badges to political allies — including a deep-pocketed supporter of Chris Christie.
Trout, a former special education teacher who had worked as an officer for both the Mercer and Hunterdon sheriff departments, was accused of showing a lack of judgment. Undersheriff Michael Russo — who conducted his own background check — showed something more. Russo had headed the Warren County chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation had cited the group as “the only society that has come under fierce criticism from governmental agencies, including law enforcement offices, and private citizens. Complaints centered on the intimidation tactics of certain officers and their arrogant display of weapons. Law enforcement officials were critical of the society’s inadequate screening process for applicants and lack of training for members.”
And the newly employed friends? A twice-dismissed police department employee fighting a drunk driving conviction and loss of driving privileges and a Trout campaign contributor who had never held a law enforcement position.
Hunterdon County’s Chief Prosecutor J. Patrick Barnes — a contentious yet respected figure credited with strengthening the professionalism of the office — took Kobner’s tip seriously and began the investigation, although with some apparent trepidation: he twice offered the state the opportunity to take over the investigation.
Kobner soon left the sheriff’s office. Over the next two years the sheriff department operated as it had, a citizen’s “Out With Trout” campaign was launched, investigators performed their duties, and a grand jury was convened.
Then on the morning of May 7, 2010, 43 indictments against the Hunterdon County Sheriff were released. They included official misconduct, attempts to intimidate, attempts to limit free speech, possession of false or fraudulent concealed weapon permits, removal of county property, creation of false government identification cards, and more.
Then things became less clear — beginning with Undersheriff Russo allegedly responding to the indictments by telling an aide that Governor Christie will “have this whole thing thrown out.”
By that afternoon New Jersey Attorney General Paula T. Dow fired Barnes and appointed deputy attorney general Dermott O’Grady as acting prosecutor.
Soon after deputy attorney general Christina Hoffman submitted a report to a superior court judge and claimed that the indictments were riddled with “legal and factual deficiencies.” The indictments were dismissed and the county documents related to the case went to Trenton.
“It was an extraordinary move,” noted the New York Times in a 2013 investigation. “The New Jersey courts, in a landmark 2001 decision, held that indictments should not be thrown out ‘unless prosecutorial misconduct is extreme and clearly infringes upon the grand jury decision-making process.’ The corruption bureau’s court filing did not point to any prosecutorial missteps.”
Then three of the county’s respected members of the prosecutor’s office were out of their jobs. Two were veteran assistant prosecutors, William McGovern and Charles Ouslander, were unable to accept the state’s actions and suggestions to remain quiet — with McGovern reporting that he was reminded that he had a wife “who appreciates your paycheck” — and retired.
The other was Ben Barlyn, 50, a former New Jersey deputy attorney general, director of a New Jersey commission on sentencing, and a Hunterdon County assistant prosecutor.
Barlyn confronted O’Grady and said he believed that the case was closed for political reasons. He was immediately suspended and fired weeks later through a one-page letter to his attorney. Barlyn was two years short of a pension.
“My 18 years working for the state and county were ruined — for doing the right thing, for doing what a prosecutor was supposed to do,” says Barlyn during an interview at a Bucks County cafe near the Delaware River, not far from his Washington Crossing home.
It’s an early fall Sunday afternoon and chatter about the Bridgegate hearings is in the air. “With the bridge,” he says, “Whatever (the Christie administration) did was insane. It’s crazy and corrupt. But Hunterdon was just corrupt.”
While there is no proof that shows Christie was directly following up as Undersheriff Russo allegedly said he would, there are close connections to his office.
First there is the Christie-appointed State Attorney General Dow, who served as Christie’s counsel at the U.S. Attorney General’s office and oversaw the removal of the Hunterdon County prosecutors. Unlike an independently elected attorney general, New Jersey attorneys general can be influenced by the agenda of an administration. And, according to notes shared by McGovern with the New York Times, Dow told the fired Barnes that “decisions on the sheriff’s case were now being made at levels ‘above her.’”
Then, according to the New York Times, “Sheriff Trout had political ties to the administration. She led an association of county law enforcement officials that backed the candidacy of Mr. Christie and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who had previously served as sheriff in Monmouth County.
“Ms. Guadagno and Ms. Trout exchanged chatty e-mails, according to court records. After the election, Ms. Guadagno thanked Sheriff Trout for sending her deputies to work on the campaign.”
And while Gov. Christie has denied any knowledge or involvement, the International Business Times reported on direct communication from a senior political aide to Christie to the appointed Hunterdon County prosecutor about the case.
Barlyn believes the decisions to intervene in Hunterdon came from Trenton and has been unafraid to bring it to the attention of top law enforcers.
In 2012 Barlyn submitted a legal complaint claiming wrongful termination and arguing that the attorney general killed the indictment to protect prominent supporters of the governor.
Since then he has legally pressed the Christie administration to release case documents, including the Hunterdon County grand jury testimony, in order to learn the exact nature of the “legal and factual deficiencies.”
In 2015 he wrote to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “I believe the New Jersey Attorney General’s office made false statements in its motion to dismiss the indictments, thereby misleading the judge who signed the order. Other Hunterdon prosecutors and detectives involved in the investigation share this view.” (See sidebar, page 32.)
Meanwhile the Christie-connected law firm hired to represent the state, Gibbons P.C. — where longtime Christie confidant and former law partner William Palatucci is a special counsel — billed New Jersey taxpayers more than $3 million in defense costs.
“That’s actually more than Barlyn had originally sought or contemplated after he sued the state,” said a June, 2016, Advanced Media article.
“We tried to resolve this case before the complaint was even filed in 2012. Had that happened, it is inconceivable that any settlement would have been more than what Gibbons has charged the state at this point,” said Barlyn in the same article.
“Gibbons and the state are really dictating and driving the cost of this matter to the New Jersey taxpayer,” he said.
The article added that in 2015 Gibbons had become the state’s “largest beneficiary of outside counsel work” and “was a healthy supporter of Christie’s 2016 presidential campaign.”
Advanced Media also reported that the Christie donor receiving the false Hunterdon County Sheriff’s Department ID was Robert Hariri, an executive at Celgene, a major New Jersey biopharmaceutical company, a $6,800 contributor to Christie’s first gubernatorial campaign, and a member of the governor’s 2009 transition team.
The article notes that Celgene — which benefited from millions of dollars of state grants — raised funds for Christie’s presidential campaign and hired Christie’s former chief of staff, Richard Bagger, in 2011. He later moved to the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey.
Back in the cafe, Barlyn puts his actions in perspective: “Look, I was reporting to my superior that I saw a crime being committed. As a result I was retaliated against.”
He then talks about his change of fortune and a new understanding. “Since this happened I’ve seen this narrative played out over and over again about whistleblowers. Personally it is shockingly disruptive, and painful. But it is relatively commonplace when you read about people who act to their conscience.”
While Barlyn accepts the “whistleblower” label, he says it is inaccurate. “I didn’t go outside the chain of command, like (former CIA computer programmer Edward) Snowden. I didn’t go to the press. I went to the person who was immediately responsible. I only went public when the state terminated me from my position. Technically I was accused of being insubordinate, which is a refusal to follow a command. I complained. I obstructed nothing. I call myself an assistant prosecutor doing his job, following his oath. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Then, he says, “We were just doing our job: not to serve the interest of the governor but the citizens of Hunterdon County. (And) here’s what’s more mind-boggling, the attorney general came down on the side of (the individuals indicted), not the career prosecutors. The attorney general — representing the governor — is planting both feet down on the side of these miscreants.”
While the Christie administration is slow to share Hunterdon documents for review, it has been quick to call the accusation of the former Hunterdon County prosecutors a “wild-eyed conspiracy theory.”
But others in the law profession disagree. Former New Jersey Attorney General Robert Del Tufo, for example, told NJ Spotlight in 2014 (two years before his death, “Taking over a county prosecutor’s office requires the consent of the governor,” and that Dow’s action was a highly unusual step. “The attorney general could have taken the case to Trenton and taken steps to convince an assignment judge to dismiss it. But booting the prosecutor aside and dismissing his assistants seems to be going overboard.”
Barlyn’s roots are in Schenectady in upstate New York. His father was a general surgeon, his mother a housewife. But it was his superior court judge aunt who “was a great influence. I tried to follow in her footsteps,” he says, calling her an “exemplary public servant.”
The footsteps led him to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and then to American University Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C. It was there he met Suzanne — his wife of 25 years, mother to their three children (ages 21, 17, and 14), and a Reuters reporter covering enforcement of financial regulations.
It was at law school where he also found his career path. “I intended to be a public defender, but everything changed when I interned with a federal prosecutor for a summer. It completely refocused my goal to become a prosecutor.”
He explains the choice. “The law is very mercenary: You represent a client. A prosecutor’s job is to do justice. It requires you to do the right thing at the right reason all the time. You don’t have a client, you defend an idea: even-handed justice.
Barlyn’s background also includes interning for a U.S. Attorney General, and — after moving to New Jersey and settling in Hamilton Township — working as a deputy attorney general in the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, 1994 through 2001, and the New Jersey Office of Counter-Terrorism, 2002 to 2005; executive director of the State of New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing, 2004 to 2007, and then assistant prosecutor for Hunterdon County.
“When I went to Hunterdon from the sentencing commission, I was expecting to move my way into a quiet professional life. My expectations were immediately dashed because of the Jayson Williams case” — the former NBA star’s shooting of a limo driver in 2002 — “and I was thrust into the middle of that, a high-profile assignment.” An early trial resulted in a deadlock, but Williams pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a prison term in 2010.
Then there was the Trout case, spearheaded by Barlyn’s coworkers, or as he calls them, “career law enforcement personnel.”
“My role in the (Hunterdon) case was somewhat peripheral,” he says — to communicate with the staff and “weigh in about legal matters,” including new state laws and management decisions. It was that orientation that in part led him to speak up when the Trout case was suddenly dropped.
“I wasn’t the only one making these allegations,” he says. McGovern also complained before resigning, and assistant prosecutor Charles Ouslander, a Pennington-based former assistant attorney general, urged the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation to examine the case (see sidebar, above).
NJ Spotlight also noted that even “Hunterdon County’s Republican establishment, including George Melick, who retired in January (2014) after 35 years on the county freeholder board, agree with Barlyn and former First Assistant Prosecutor Charles Ouslander that the Christie administration improperly dismissed the case against Trout and her two deputies for political reasons.”
Barlyn sums up his situation as follows. “As I explained to my kids, I’m a volunteer fireman (16 years with Upper Makefield Fire Company), and it’s like I went to a fire and was told not to put it out, and when I did I was fired. I had to speak out, and I did.”
Asked what he learned in Hunterdon and the unfolding Bridgegate revelations, Barlyn says, “What is fascinating about the Christie era is you do your job, and then you’re blindsided by a breach of the public trust. None of us could have contemplated it at the time.”
Since then Barlyn’s career has shifted: he is now a middle school social studies and English teacher. Yet he remained fixed on pursuing “even handed justice” and to get to the truth of the Hunterdon matter.
Joining him has been Pennington-based attorney Robert Lytle of Szaferman Lakind Blumstein & Blader PC, headquartered at 101 Grovers Mill Road in Lawrence. Barlyn met Lytle when they were fellow deputy attorneys general, and Lytle was once under the supervision of Barlyn’s Hunterdon colleague Ouslander.
“It was pretty courageous for (Lytle) to take on the case when (in 2012) the governor was much higher in stature and unsullied” in reputation, says Barlyn, referring to Christie’s former 77 percent approval rating and being named by the Washington Post as “The Most Popular Republican in the Nation.”
And despite setbacks, delays, paperwork, and legal costs, the two pressed on against the administration and, as Barlyn calls it, the state’s blank check to Gibbons.
In 2015 Barlyn and Lytle won the release of the Hunterdon County grand jury testimony. The receipt of the transcript seems to have been a turning point. “We were only entitled to the transcript if we met a high standard of relevance,” Barlyn says. “The documents would make our case one way or the other. Look at how ferociously the state fought us from attaining it.”
Thinking of the current political landscape, he says, “Bridgegate has been fascinating because it lifts the veil of what we saw in Hunterdon, the taking over of agencies to serve only political ends. We were there first.”
Then he marvels at “the complete lack of curiosity of the powers that be of what happened in Hunterdon,” including letters written by him and his colleagues to federal and state investigators, not to mention frequent newspaper reports and editorials.
The latter includes last year’s statement by the Star-Ledger: “What we know is that the heavy-handed dismissal of the indictment has never been properly explained, and that firing Barlyn over his protests of the decision has never been remotely justified. We know that prosecutors, investigators, and grand jurors all felt the dismissal of the indictment was an outrage . . . There was a day, long ago, when it would be hard to believe the Christie administration would be reckless enough to abuse its authority like this . . . But the Bridgegate scandal has been an education. No one should pass judgment on the Hunterdon case until more facts are known.”
That is something else to add to the current chatter in the air.