Who's in the outbox?

Gov. Christie says broadening his national profile gives him a platform to achieve policy goals at home.
Gov. Christie says broadening his national profile gives him a platform to achieve policy goals at home. (MEL EVANS / Associated Press)

Inquirer reporters' request for Christie's e-mail recipient list is in limbo.

Posted: January 01, 2012

How do they know so much about this guy?

That was the question raised last year in a conversation with another reporter: How had freshman New Jersey Gov. Christie amassed such a strong national following in so short a time?

Cable news bookers, presidential fund-raisers, and conservative talk radio hosts had fallen in love with him overnight. One explanation for the sudden surge in popularity could have been Christie's aggressive use of social media like Twitter and YouTube. But that could get him only so far. Something else intrigued us: Who's on his e-mail list?

The Christie administration has a sophisticated electronic communications operation, e-mailing updates complete with policy proposals, stats, charts, slogans, positive news clippings, and speech excerpts. Surely those e-mails couldn't be for the sole benefit of the ink-stained wretches trolling Trenton's Press Row.

Could it be that the e-mails also went to a larger, politically influential national audience? Did Rush Limbaugh get the governor's e-mail at ElRushbo@EIBnet.com? What about Roger Ailes' inbox? Or Nancy Reagan's?

Christie makes no bones about trying to broaden his national profile. He says this gives him a platform to achieve policy goals at home. But it also helps keep him on short lists of GOP vice presidential candidates - on Friday, he campaigned for Mitt Romney in Iowa - causing Democrats to question whether his priorities were with the state that pays his salary.

On Nov. 16, 2010, my colleague Cynthia Burton filed an Open Public Records Act request for "the full list of recipients of press releases, video clips, e-mails, and other materials sent electronically to publicize Gov. Christie."

Thus began a circuitous battle that isn't over yet.

Christie's assistant counsel denied our request - because it failed "to identify any specific government records, and instead contemplates the creation of new government records. Additionally, the contemplated scope of this request is also unclear as to what constitutes materials sent electronically to publicize Gov. Christie."

Two related requests for travel records - how much tax money was spent on his political trips? - were also rejected. So The Inquirer turned to the state Government Records Council, which resolves such disputes.

In October, state Attorney General Paula Dow submitted an argument to the council saying our e-mail request was "vaguely worded" and left "unclear terms such as publicize and materials." The Open Public Records Act, Dow noted, "is a records law, not an 'information' law." She cited earlier cases and said the state was not required to conduct research to fill a request.

Also, her letter said, publicize is "facially unclear and open to interpretation." It included the Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary definition of the word and said "the request is an improper open-ended demand for all communications to the public."

As much as reporters would love to (and think we are entitled to) see all communication between the governor and the public, that is not what we wanted. So I made a narrower request, for "all e-mails sent from the govnews@gov.state.nj.us e-mail address in August 2011," including distribution lists.

The e-mails? Got 'em. The distribution list? Denied.

In November, the council asked for legal certification from the Governor's Office of whether it maintained a recipient list for news releases and/or video clips. Christie's office said yes, it "maintains e-mail addresses" used in news releases, but had no "uniform recipient list."

Fair enough. So I narrowed it further. I asked for a specific e-mailed news release with the "BCC" field included. The release was provided - sans addresses - and a new reason given: "A reasonable expectation of privacy."

When I informed the records council of this, Dow's office responded that it was irrelevant because it stemmed from a separate request.

As a colleague quipped in an e-mail to me, "Kind of reminds you of Catch-22 . . . the incredibly literal reading of a statute designed to provide information to the public to achieve the deliberate obfuscation of our requests."

So now we await the decision of the records council - which, by the way, has only three of its required five members. Two of those three are in Christie's cabinet.

Council spokeswoman Lisa Ryan assured me its decisions "are based on the law" and rarely overturned.

I'll provide updates on this case at my blog. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on this question: Is it any of our business whom the governor e-mails?


 


Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles.

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