Despite being labeled “wild eyed conspirators” by Gov. Chris Christie’s former communications director Michael Drewniak, former members of the Hunterdon County prosecutor’s office — who also happen to be past state deputy attorneys general — have been willing to voice their concerns about the potential politicization of the New Jersey Attorney General’s office to the highest authorities in the state and nation.
The following are excerpts from some of their communications:
From First Assistant Hunterdon County Prosecutor Charles Ouslander to Assemblyman John Wisniewski and the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation, February, 2014.
I am writing this letter regarding recent public events surrounding an abuse of law enforcement powers exercised by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office when it superseded the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office in 2010.
I served as the first assistant Hunterdon County prosecutor when the events recounted in a recent New York Times expose, “The Quashing of a Case Against a Christie Ally,” occurred. I have since gone on record to corroborate the allegations of official misconduct against the New Jersey attorney general relating to the handling of the criminal case against Sheriff Deborah Trout made by two former colleagues: Bennett Barlyn and William McGovern. According to the New York Times story, four grand jurors have, in turn, independently and separately corroborated their allegations.
As a former career county and state level prosecutor with first-hand knowledge of the events in question, I again express my belief that the actions of the Attorney General were unlawful and, from my vantage point, obviously influenced by improper political considerations. As such, it is of vital public importance that the committee undertakes an exhaustive investigation into the conduct of the attorney general.
From Bennett Barlyn to United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch, October, 2015.
I am now the plaintiff in a whistleblower lawsuit against New Jersey Attorney General’s office, which has yielded additional evidence to support my allegations about misconduct by the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, which appears to operate as an arm of Governor Christie’s administration, and not an independent agency.
Additional information has come to light that greatly strengthens the allegations of official misconduct arising from the dismissal of the Hunterdon County indictment. The account that follows may seem improbable. Nonetheless, the following facts are derived exclusively from court records and can be easily verified.
Almost one year to the day after the attorney general’s office secured the dismissal of the indictment against Hunterdon County Sheriff Deborah Trout, it obtained a state indictment against (Middlesex County Sheriff and then current Middlesex County Democratic Chairperson) Joseph Spicuzzo and two confederates. The indictment charged them with, among other crimes, official misconduct and bribery.
On the eve of a jury selection in September, 2012, the case came to an abrupt halt when defense counsel for the accused learned for the first time that the attorney general’s office had improperly suppressed critical exculpatory evidence.
Among the several witnesses called to testify at the hearing were two individuals at the very center of the Hunterdon case: Stephen Taylor, director of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice (the attorney general’s prosecutorial arm), and Christine Hoffman, then chief of the division’s corruption bureau.
It was Christine Hoffman who drafted and signed the letter seeking dismissal of the Hunterdon indictments on behalf of the attorney general.
The attorney general’s office initiated an investigation into Spicuzzo’s alleged misconduct only weeks after it obtained the dismissal of Trout’s indictment. According to the testimony of law enforcement personnel, including Taylor himself, at the very outset of the investigation, Taylor verbally directed investigators to treat those who paid the bribes to Spicuzzo as “victims” rather than unindicted coconspirators.
Taylor’s decision thus conferred a kind of informal or de facto immunity on these coconspirators. State Police Detective Thomas Goletz further testified that at no time did he or his subordinates involved in the investigation memorialize Taylor’s directive, either in personal notes or investigative reports.
During her testimony, Hoffman claimed that she was unable to recall whether the line prosecutor who presented the matter to the grand jury had been informed by her of Taylor’s directive.
As emphasized by the trial judge in his factual findings, Hoffman, who initially oversaw the investigation, took a conspicuously (and therefore highly suspicious) hands-off approach once she assigned the case to a subordinate in her bureau for trial. In short, Hoffman made no effort whatsoever to intervene and remediate a glaring and serious discovery defect.
At the conclusion of the hearing, (Superior Court) Judge Anthony Mellaci minced no words in assigning blame:
“There is no question that a violation of discovery under Brady (dealing with providing important evidence) occurred here. The state has as much admitted same. However one may characterize the violation, whether as egregiously careless, acting with reckless disregard, or with particular purpose, there is no question if gone undiscovered or unchecked it would have resulted in violations of fundamental principles of due process of these defendants’ rights.
“Having been a former assistant prosecutor, albeit a county prosecutor’s office, I find it inconceivable that no member of the prosecution team, including those overseeing this investigation and prosecution from the beginning, were unaware of the omissions in the discovery and their obligation to include same until the 11th hour of jury selection.”
The recitation of facts is necessary in order to carefully juxtapose the attorney general’s handling of one case against a county sheriff against its very different handling of another only two years earlier.
Recall that Christine Hoffman, taking an exceptionally proactive involvement in the Hunterdon matter, moved to dismiss the Hunterdon indictment shortly after the defendants in that case were arraigned. Certainty, no briefs had been filed or arguments made by the defendants regarding the propriety of the Hunterdon indictment. In other words, the attorney general’s dismissal of the indictment was entirely preemptive, a tactic that in my experience as a career prosecutor is unprecedented.
When assessed against the Spicuzzo prosecution two years later, it is clear that the attorney general’s blanket dismissal of the indictment in Hunterdon County was thoroughly unrelated to the grand jury presentation itself and therefore further proof that New Jersey’s chief law enforcement officer herself engaged in criminal misconduct.
It should be noted here that the corruption bureau, under Hoffman and Taylor’s supervision, has also came under intense scrutiny for its handling of a matter involving allegations of corruption by yet a third sheriff, New Jersey’s current Lt. Governor, Kim Guadagno.
In 2011, the New Jersey Board of Pensions requested that the Division of Criminal Justice initiate an investigation into whether Guadagno, as Monmouth County sheriff, engaged in fraudulent behavior in order to secure a subordinate an undeserved pension.
Notwithstanding multiple and glaring conflicts (Guadagno had once served as a deputy director of the Division of Criminal Justice), Hoffman’s bureau kept the case. In June, 2012, Hoffman personally advised the board in writing that the matter was closed. Hoffman did not disclosure her findings in the one-page submission.
Should you harbor any residual doubts about the corruption bureau being a thoroughly compromised law enforcement agency, please consider the finding of Governor Christie’s own 2009 transition report regarding the attorney general’s office.
The authors of that report devoted particular attention to the corruption bureau, and concluded that the “Corruption Unit has been unable to undertake certain high profile and complex corruption prosecutions, allegedly, attorneys and investigators have fears of political reprisals and breaches in confidentiality.”
The report further noted these allegations raise “crucial integrity concerns that go the heart of the department’s mission and its professional credibility.”
Based on the foregoing, I hope it is manifestly evident that the corruption bureau itself facilitated a readily provable act of official corruption when it intervened and secured the dismissal of the Hunterdon indictment.
From Bennett Barlyn to United States Attorney General for the District of New Jersey Paul Fishman, December, 2015.
Based on the events that I and others witnessed at that time, it was apparent that the (New Jersey) Attorney General’s office improperly exercised its broad supervisory power to briefly take over, or “supersede,” the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office as a deliberate pretext in order to dismantle a viable criminal case that had been developed over a two-year period. Notably, Sheriff Trout and a key witness were and remain strong supporters and allies of Governor Christie and Lieutenant Governor Guadagno. My allegations, both directly and indirectly, implicate two key Christie Administration officials, namely, former Attorney General Paula Dow and former Chief of Staff Richard Bagger, who currently serves as a commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Importantly, two former colleagues at the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office have directly and publicly corroborated my allegations of official misconduct.