Fired N.J. prosecutor alleges he's victim of retribution

Posted: January 29, 2014

TRENTON A former assistant prosecutor in Hunterdon County, N.J., who says he was fired for objecting to a decision by the state Attorney General's Office to drop misconduct charges against members of the county Sheriff's Department is to square off in court Tuesday against Christie administration lawyers in a fight for records he believes will back up his allegation.

Ben Barlyn, who filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in 2012, is arguing to obtain transcripts from the grand jury that returned indictments in 2010 charging three members of the Hunterdon County Sheriff's Office with official misconduct.

The case was presented by county prosecutors, but the Attorney General's Office - then led by Paula Dow - took over in 2010 and got the indictments dismissed, citing "legal and factual deficiencies" in the charges.

Barlyn, 47, alleges that the indictments were dismissed to protect Gov. Christie's allies: a sheriff who supported Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in the 2009 gubernatorial election - before taking office, Guadagno was Monmouth County sheriff - and an undersheriff who allegedly boasted that Christie would "step in [and] have this whole thing thrown out," according to a report in the Hunterdon County Democrat that quoted an unnamed source in the sheriff's office.

Barlyn's lawsuit also charges that a Christie campaign donor, Robert Hariri, received a false law-enforcement identification card produced by the sheriff's office. Hariri is chairman of Celgene Cellular Therapeutics, a stem-cell-focused division of the New Jersey-based biopharmaceutical company Celgene.

The arguments will be heard as Christie's administration faces investigations into allegations that aides blocked some access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September in political retribution. The governor's office is also confronting claims that other top aides tied the release of Sandy relief money to approval of a redevelopment deal in Hoboken. The office has denied the accusations.

Attorneys for the former sheriff's department officials and Hariri - who was not a target of the indictments - say no illegal ID card was provided.

In an interview last week, Barlyn said, "There are clear connections between these players and the administration." Barlyn, who said he is politically unaffiliated, was not directly involved in bringing the misconduct case but protested when the state moved to drop it.

To make his case that politics drove the dismissal of the indictments - and rebut the attorney general's assertion that there were problems with the charges - Barlyn is seeking records from the grand jury proceedings, which are normally secret.

"These documents are essentially the smoking-gun documents," he said. "They will either prove or disprove our claim whether the attorney general misled the court in seeking the dismissal of the indictments."

In August, a trial court judge ordered the records released to Barlyn, agreeing they were relevant to his case. The state appealed the decision, and oral arguments will be heard Tuesday in Jersey City.

"Clearly, the Christie administration would not wage this battle if the transcripts supported its case," Barlyn said in an e-mail publicizing the hearing. "What is the administration hiding?"

In addition to arguing he was wrongfully fired, Barlyn's lawsuit alleges that the Hunterdon County prosecutor was forced to resign on the day the indictments were unsealed, replaced by a deputy attorney general. Barlyn also alleges that after the dismissal of the indictments, the lead prosecutor on the case was told he could keep his job if he kept silent about the case.

In a filing responding to the suit, the Attorney General's Office denied Barlyn's allegations. A spokesman declined to comment further.

In a statement, Christie spokesman Colin Reed said, "This remains one of the most bizarre and convoluted conspiracy theories we've ever heard, coming from a deeply aggrieved, bitter litigant. It doesn't dignify further response."

According to earlier reports in the Hunterdon County Democrat, a spokesman for the attorney general provided several reasons for Barlyn's departure, including that it occurred after Barlyn objected publicly to the dismissal of the indictments and that he had received a reprimand in connection to his objections.

In a twist, the three figures cited in Barlyn's suit - former Hunterdon County Sheriff Deborah Trout, former Undersheriff Michael Russo, and former investigator John Falat Jr. - themselves have sued county officials alleging discrimination and other workplace harm.

William Courtney, an attorney for the three in that case, said his clients "had no relationship" with the governor's office.

"No one got on the phone to Gov. Christie. No one had any communications with the governor," Courtney said.

According to documents included in Barlyn's lawsuit, Trout sent Guadagno several effusive e-mails wishing her well during the 2009 campaign. In an e-mail after the election, Guadagno told Trout she had seen "a lot of your staff on the trail - thank you for giving them to us."

As the sheriff of a heavily Republican county, it's "very likely" Trout would have been present if Christie or Guadagno had visited the area, Courtney said. "It doesn't mean that she's involved with these people," he said.

Courtney said county politics contributed to the indictments against Trout, who as a sheriff's officer previously sued the county for gender discrimination.

As a result of the investigation initiated by the county Prosecutor's Office in 2008, Trout was charged with unlawfully requiring staff members to sign agreements limiting their political activity and failing to conduct appropriate employee background checks.

Russo - a founding member of a county SPCA that operated as a quasi-law-enforcement agency and had been described as "out of control" by the State Commission of Investigation - was allowed by Trout to supervise his own background check, according to the indictments.

"She didn't believe she was doing anything improper. If anybody had complained about it, she probably wouldn't have done it," Courtney said.

Several charges against Russo and Falat alleged they transferred simulated sheriff's office identification cards with titles such as "chief surgeon" and "senior adviser." Hariri received one of the cards, according to a Hunterdon County Democrat report cited in Barlyn's lawsuit.

Hariri's attorney and brother, Ronald, said in an interview that the sheriff's office had asked Robert Hariri if he would volunteer to train first responders to deal with biohazards, and was issued "a civilian sheriff's office identification card identifying him as a medical professional."

According to state election law records, Robert Hariri, of Bernardsville, gave $6,800 to Christie's campaign in 2009, and $5,000 to the Republican state committee in 2011. He served on the governor's transition team and was nominated by Christie to the state commission for cancer research.

"He's proud to support Gov. Christie," Ronald Hariri said, adding that "any claims that he improperly influenced anything are preposterous."

Barlyn's lawsuit mentions Robert Hariri's flying members of the sheriff's office in his private plane to a first-responders' conference.

Ronald Hariri said Robert Hariri had been invited to attend a conference set up by U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D., N.J.). Knowing that Russo was also attending, Hariri invited him to fly on the jet, Ronald Hariri said. Courtney said only Russo went on the plane. "There was no quid pro quo involved - they were both going to the same meeting," he said.

The lawsuit mentions other donations by Celgene executives to Christie's administration, and the company's announcement that it had hired former Christie chief of staff Richard Bagger in 2012.

A Celgene corporate affairs spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.


mhanna@phillynews.com

609-989-8990

@maddiehanna

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