Ben Barlyn, the subject of my “Whistleblower” story, and I have a connection: We both have been on the receiving end of the Christie administration’s abrupt and questionable use of power.
Barlyn was a member of the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office that was suddenly taken over by the State of New Jersey for some still unclear reasons. I was working on several projects for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts when it became the target for Christie’s second in command, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, and suddenly several of us found ourselves publicly accused of nonexistent crimes also for unclear reasons.
My U.S. 1 first person story appeared on January 15, 2014, a week after the “Time for some traffic problem in Fort Lee” e-mail revelations and two days before Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer stepped forward to claim Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno took her aside and gave her an ultimatum: play with the governor or expect to feel some political pain.
Of course that “play or pain” approach is illustrated by Christie team members closing the George Washington Bridge lanes in order to send a political message to a mayor who declined to endorse the governor for re-election.
Barlyn and I are also connected by the New York Times writer Michael Powell, who wrote a series of articles about the Christie administration’s questionable use of the state’s legal system.
Less than a week after my article had appeared in U.S. 1 and been posted on the New York Times international website by columnist Paul Krugman, Powell called the office and began asking me questions.
Early on during our discussion, I advised Powell to do some research on me first and make sure that he felt comfortable about my character and the kind of person I proposed to be — after all I had been accused of a crime by the State of New Jersey.
His reply was that it had already done by a former Hunterdon County prosecutor, Bennett Barlyn. The subject of an earlier New York Times story, Barlyn told Powell my story rang true with what he and others in Hunterdon had experienced.
Although connected by circumstances, Barlyn and I lived and worked in parallel worlds — he was starting a new career teaching, and I was dealing with a busy schedule of writing and editing stories for U.S. 1 and the Trenton Downtowner. But we were connected by our experience.
Then one November evening in 2015 the connection got deeper. Barlyn called the U.S. 1 office to ask me a simple question: What was the name of the state criminal investigation unit that handled my case? The answer: Christie Hoffman.
Barlyn’s response was that Hoffman and her boss, Stephen Taylor, appeared to be at the center of a series of controversies involving the state attorney general’s office. That includes the Hunterdon and New Jersey State Council on the Arts situations as well as the quashing of fraud charges against a former Monmouth County sheriff, now Lt. Gov. Guadagno, who also figures in all of the above.
Given the recent revelations that members of Christie’s circle have been willing to punish individuals and entire communities to make a political point — with cronies even ready to strong-arm airlines for personal favors — the idea that this administration could use members of the state’s legal division to advance an agenda is far from a “wild eyed conspiracy.”
The potential was so strong and disturbing for Barlyn, who has spent the past several years struggling to find answers regarding Hunterdon and finding curious linkages, that he has asked U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to launch a neutral investigation — rather than another in-house, governor-initiated, firm-friendly investigation like the criticized Mastro report on the George Washington Bridge.
With Christie appointees and confidants pleading guilty to federal crimes, memos claiming that the governor lied to the public, talk by legislators of impeachment, and questions about the state’s legal operations, it is clear that we have a crisis — one much larger than a bridge closing.
And “politics as usual” isn’t going to save the day.
During our recent interview, Barlyn said he was concerned that curious cases like Hunterdon have not had the same impact on the New Jersey Legislature, the federal government, the general public, or even the media that the Bridgegate has had.
As this issue shows, he’s not alone.