Whistle-blower suit plays role in Paula Dow's nomination to a Burlington County judgeship

Paula Dow will face questions over a whistle- blower lawsuit.
Paula Dow will face questions over a whistle- blower lawsuit.
Posted: June 29, 2012

TRENTON - Former state Attorney General Paula Dow, nominated to a judgeship in Burlington County, will face questions over a politically charged whistle-blower lawsuit at her confirmation hearing Thursday.

The suit alleges that Dow dropped a corruption indictment against public officials because those accused had ties to Gov. Christie. The lead prosecutor on the case was then fired by a Dow deputy.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D., Union), who will preside over Thursday's hearing, called allegations in the whistle-blower suit "explosive."

"That's not good; those are pretty bad allegations," Scutari said. "She's going to have to answer to them."

Bennett Barlyn, the fired assistant prosecutor from Hunterdon County, sent a letter to Scutari notifying him of the suit and the circumstances around it. It is unclear whether Barlyn is going to testify at the hearing.

According to Barlyn's lawsuit, filed this year in Superior Court, Dow in 2010 dismissed a 43-count grand jury indictment against former Hunterdon Sheriff Deborah Trout and two underlings. The three, all Republicans, were charged with official misconduct and the manufacture of false law-enforcement ID cards. Dow is a Democrat who was named to the post by Christie.

One of those cards went to Robert Hariri, who donated thousands of dollars to Christie's gubernatorial campaign and served on his transition team.

In his suit, Barlyn seeks to prove political connections by producing copies of e-mails between Trout and Christie's 2009 running mate, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, in which Guadagno thanks Trout for help with the Christie campaign.

Hariri did not return a call for comment, and Trout could not be reached.

The unusual dismissal of the case, Barlyn alleges, "was politically motivated, corrupt, and constituted official misconduct." Barlyn is also a former deputy attorney general.

Barlyn alleges that Dow dismissed the indictment to "protect a significant contributor to the governor's campaign." In addition, Barlyn alleges, one of Trout's undersheriffs publicly said Christie would "have this whole thing thrown out."

When Barlyn complained about the case's being dropped, according to the suit, he was suspended and then fired by a deputy of Dow's who at the time was the acting county prosecutor.

The defendants - including Dow, the Attorney General's Office, and a range of other officials - have moved to dismiss the suit. Christie is not a defendant. A hearing is scheduled for next month.

Dow, who now works for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, declined to comment. Leland Moore, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, said: "We dispute the allegations and intend to defend against this lawsuit vigorously."

Asked about the allegations that Dow had a case dismissed to protect those connected to Christie and Guadagno, the governor's spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said Christie does not know the individuals, the case, or the politics involved.

"This guy is just making stuff up as he goes along," Drewniak said of Barlyn.

Although the case has not gone before a judge, Scutari intends to bring it up Thursday. "I'm going ask her: 'Is there any truth to this? What was your involvement?' " he said.

If Dow was involved in "a political payback scheme," it "would be very concerning," he said.

The Democratic-controlled Judiciary Committee has flexed its muscle in recent months, rejecting two Christie nominees to the Supreme Court. They were the first two gubernatorial nominees to the high court ever rejected by the Legislature.

Scutari said he expected the committee to approve Dow unless she failed to answer questions about Barlyn or any other issues "satisfactorily."

Scutari said he also planned to ask Dow about another lawsuit that occurred when she was an Essex County prosecutor, and about her "managerial skills" during her time as attorney general.

When Christie announced the Dow nomination last month, the Burlington County Bar Association president said it was disappointed that a local lawyer was not selected to fill one of the two vacancies on the county bench.

Dow had originally been nominated to Superior Court in Essex County. But a dispute with that county's Democratic senators - who can block local nominations based on the Senate's unofficial rules - apparently delayed a hearing.

Burlington County's senators are Republicans considered friendly to Christie. Still, Christie's office said Dow is moving to Burlington County and is doing so for personal, not political, reasons.

Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington) said she did not know whether Dow's appointment in Burlington County was made to avoid the Essex County dispute. But she said she was happy to be getting a judge and thinks it helped that Dow wanted a judgeship and is moving to the county.

"I'm not sure that he [Christie] would have chosen that position for Burlington County otherwise," she said. "Many of us have been pushing for so long to have another seat that when we finally get it, I think we shouldn't be too unhappy."

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

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