The Quashing of a Case Against a Christie Ally

FLEMINGTON, N.J. — Prosecutors sent tremors through rural Hunterdon County when they announced a sweeping indictment of the local Republican sheriff and her two deputies in 2010.

The 43-count grand jury indictment read like a primer in small-town abuse of power. It accused Sheriff Deborah Trout of hiring deputies without conducting proper background checks, and making employees sign loyalty oaths. Her deputies, the indictment charged, threatened one of their critics and manufactured fake police badges for a prominent donor to Gov. Chris Christie.

When the charges became public, the indicted undersheriff, Michael Russo, shrugged it off. Governor Christie, he assured an aide, would “have this whole thing thrown out,” according to The Hunterdon County Democrat. That sounded like bluster. Then the state killed the case.

On the day the indictment was unsealed, the state attorney general, a Christie appointee, took over the Hunterdon prosecutor’s office. Within a few months, three of its most respected veterans lost their jobs there, including the one who led the case.

Not long after, a deputy attorney general walked into a local courtroom and handed in papers that, with little explanation, declared that the indictments were littered with “legal and factual deficiencies.”

A judge dismissed the indictments. Soon after, officials took the unusual step of shipping all evidence to the capital, Trenton.

The killing of an indictment is a rare event in New Jersey, and all the more surprising as it came during Governor Christie’s first months in office. The new governor was elected on the strength of his record as a United States attorney prosecuting corrupt officials.

There is no evidence that Mr. Christie ordered the dismissal of the charges against Sheriff Trout. But his attorney general, Paula T. Dow, who had served as his counsel at the United States attorney’s office, supervised the quashing of the indictment and the ouster of the respected prosecutors.

Sheriff Trout had political ties to the administration. She led an association of county law enforcement officials that backed the candidacy of Mr. Christie and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who had previously served as sheriff in Monmouth County.

Ms. Guadagno and Ms. Trout exchanged chatty e-mails, according to court records. After the election, Ms. Guadagno thanked Sheriff Trout for sending her deputies to work on the campaign.

Ms. Trout left office in 2010. But the case and the Christie administration’s role in killing it have surfaced again because one of the dismissed prosecutors, Bennett A. Barlyn, has filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming that the attorney general killed the indictment to protect prominent supporters of the governor.

In August, a New Jersey judge ordered the attorney general to release the grand jury records to Mr. Barlyn, who said the records would detail the considerable strength of the now-dead case. The state has appealed the decision.

“I was frog-marched out of the prosecutor’s office,” Mr. Barlyn said, “because I objected to the dismissal of a viable case against an important local official.”

Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the governor and lieutenant governor, described accusations of a Christie connection as pure silliness. Hunterdon County, he said, is known for its “ferocious local politics.”

“This truly is some of the most wild-eyed conspiracy theories I’ve heard in a long time,” Mr. Drewniak said.

Ms. Trout and her former undersheriff, Mr. Russo, responded through their lawyer, William J. Courtney, who denied there was any political interference in the case. He said Mr. Russo’s remark about the governor’s throwing out the case, if his client said it in that fashion, which he has denied, reflected only his hope that state government would not let a badly flawed indictment stand.

New Jersey, however, has made an art form of high-level interference in political cases. Governors dominate the legal landscape far more than in neighboring states. The governor appoints the attorney general, county prosecutors and judges, all subject to legislative confirmation.

In Hunterdon County, the grand jurors remain angry about the abrupt dismissal of the case. Four jurors, interviewed separately, described the presentation against the sheriff and her deputies as deeply persuasive.

“The prosecutor was meticulous and so were we,” said one of the grand jurors. “Really, the case felt like a no-brainer until the state killed it.”

Loyalty Oaths and Fake IDs

The case began with a whispered tip.

In January 2008, the month Sheriff Trout took office, one of her employees, Mark Kobner, called a Hunterdon prosecutor in Flemington. Quietly, methodically, he described a pattern of improper, even criminal, behavior inside the sheriff’s office.

Mr. Kobner’s voice was not easily ignored: he was a retired undercover New York City narcotics sergeant and had labored at ground zero. He said the new sheriff had demanded that he sign a loyalty oath and promise not to vote against her. Her deputies, he charged, minted illegal law enforcement identifications for the politically well-connected, giving them a veneer of authority.

Mr. Kobner’s tip produced an intense headache for the top Hunterdon County prosecutor, J. Patrick Barnes.

Hunterdon rolls north from the curling Delaware River through handsome farmland, picturesque hamlets with old stone inns, pricey antique shops and affluent residential developments. The landscape is serene; the politics are bare-knuckle. The Republican sheriff and the Republican-dominated Board of Freeholders quarreled ferociously, and no slight was forgiven or forgotten.

Mr. Barnes, who was appointed by former Gov. James E. McGreevey, a Democrat, had taken pains to avoid being drawn into this politically charged maw. He asked Mr. Barlyn to look at the legal issues raised by the sheriff’s behavior.

Mr. Barlyn was one of three prosecutors whose careers were to run aground. A centrist, self-described Truman Democrat, he had argued cases before the State Supreme Court and had directed the state’s Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing.

Investigators looking into Sheriff Trout’s office soon unearthed evidence of possible criminal behavior that later went before the grand jury.

The sheriff, investigators found, ran an office in which personal loyalty was paramount and standard background checks were often not conducted, resulting in some noteworthy personnel appointments. She appointed Michael Russo her undersheriff. A hot-tempered figure, he had led a chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that the State Commission of Investigation found had operated like a paramilitary organization, with officers carrying guns and night-vision goggles. It was, the commission stated, the “paradigm of a society that is out of control.”

Undersheriff Russo was allowed to oversee his own background check for employment in the sheriff’s office, the grand jury later found. A lawyer for Mr. Russo denied this.

Another new deputy, Erik Ezekian, had a yet more colorful résumé. Several years earlier he sailed his S.U.V. through a guard rail and embarked on an intoxicated run through cornfields and pine forests, with the police on foot and by helicopter in hot pursuit. After Sheriff Trout hired him, he was indicted on charges of lying about that arrest, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and accepted a lifetime ban on public employment in New Jersey.

The state’s official misconduct law makes it a criminal offense for a sheriff to refrain from conducting background checks on new employees.

Sheriff Trout’s office bridled at criticism. When an online forum posted articles about the deputies’ connections to the rogue S.P.C.A. chapter, Undersheriff Russo fired off an e-mail. He told the software developer who ran the site, Dennis Mabrey, that he was “under investigation for criminal/civil prosecution.”

“Immediately remove,” he continued, “the slanderous, false and otherwise disgusting content concerning me.”

Mr. Mabrey assumed it was a joke — until he checked the address and saw that the e-mail had come from the sheriff’s office. Then he got angry.

“Threaten me? I don’t think so,” Mr. Mabrey said. “I realized that we couldn’t trust him to pick up our dogs, much less our crooks.”

The Hunterdon prosecutor later obtained an indictment of Mr. Russo for trying to intimidate Mr. Mabrey.

The sheriff and her deputies befriended Dr. Robert Hariri, a top official at Celgene, a large biopharmaceutical company in Summit, N.J. A surgeon, Dr. Hariri contributed $10,200 to Governor Christie and served on a transition committee for the governor.

Dr. Hariri flew Undersheriff Russo to a conference in Washington on his private jet, according to court records. Mr. Russo and Sheriff Trout, in turn, gave him a fake police ID. The doctor’s lawyer, Bruce H. Nagel, did not deny that his client had received an ID. “Let’s assume he did,” he said. “So what?”

In public and behind the scenes, Sheriff Trout resisted the investigation at every turn. Her tactics worried Prosecutor Barnes, who repeatedly asked the attorney general’s public corruption unit to take over the case and remove it from local authorities. The attorney general’s office told him to proceed with it.

In January 2010, days after Governor Christie took office, a Hunterdon assistant prosecutor, William McGovern, a registered Republican with a by-the-books style, met in Trenton with the attorney general, Ms. Dow. She had written a transition report for the new governor in which she noted that public corruption prosecutions often ran upon the shoals of politics in New Jersey and that prosecutors feared reprisals.

Ms. Dow, who had previously served as Essex County prosecutor, pressed Mr. McGovern about whether the behavior in the Hunterdon sheriff’s office warranted a criminal prosecution. Mr. McGovern replied that the sheriff and her deputies appeared to have violated multiple state laws, according to a person who attended the confidential meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity. The Hunterdon County prosecutors left with a seeming mandate to pursue the case.

Mr. McGovern presented his case to the grand jury, which returned the 43-count indictment. “We had no real disagreements,” a woman on the jury recalled. “It was cut and dried.”

On May 7, 2010, a judge unsealed the indictment, which charged that the sheriff had infringed the constitutional rights of her subordinates. Other offenses included manufacturing false law enforcement identification.

Reaction was swift: Attorney General Dow, in a highly unusual move, sent a deputy attorney general, Dermot O’Grady, to assume control of the Hunterdon prosecutor’s office. In Trenton, a spokesman for the attorney general offered a confusing explanation. “It’s still a Hunterdon case. But we control the office.”

The local prosecutors and detectives found themselves on the outside looking in. “In my 28 years,” Detective Sgt. Kenneth Rowe wrote in an e-mail included in court papers, “I have never seen a prosecutorial agency act or work as a defense counsel. Why the interest in this small-time case?”

In August 2010, Mr. O’Grady ordered Mr. McGovern, the lead prosecutor, off the case.

Later that month, the chief of the attorney general’s corruption bureau announced that the state was dropping the indictments, saying that the charges “seek to criminalize what are essentially bad management decisions.”

It was an extraordinary move. The New Jersey courts, in a landmark 2001 decision, held that indictments should not be thrown out “unless prosecutorial misconduct is extreme and clearly infringes upon the grand jury decision-making process.”

The corruption bureau’s court filing did not point to any prosecutorial missteps, and the attorney general’s office declined to respond to questions, pointing to the continuing lawsuit.

The atmosphere in the Hunterdon prosecutor’s office that day was funereal. Prosecutors huddled, whispering. Mr. Baryln passed Mr. O’Grady in the hallway, and according to two eyewitness accounts, confronted the deputy attorney general. This move, he told Mr. O’Grady, is unlawful and motivated by corrupt politics.

The next day Mr. O’Grady suspended Mr. Barlyn and security officers escorted him out of the office. Mr. O’Grady ordered an investigation of Mr. Barlyn, who had received many exemplary personnel ratings.

Then, the chief of the special victims unit, Brian Shevlin, said Mr. O’Grady summoned him and pressured him to cooperate with the investigation. Nothing came of that investigation.

Mr. O’Grady “told me that I ‘have to think about my family,’ ” Mr. Shevlin wrote in an e-mail to colleagues in the prosecutor’s office, according to court records. “I found this conversation both vulgar and insulting.”

On Sept. 15, 2010, Mr. Barlyn was fired.

The attorney general’s spokesman, Paul Loriquet, offered varying public explanations for the firing. First, he told reporters, Mr. Barlyn had walked out after being reprimanded. An hour later, the spokesman said that the attorney general had fired Mr. Barlyn for “publicly objecting to the dismissal of the charges” and refusing to come back to work. That, too, was not true, said Mr. Barlyn and four of his colleagues.

Still later, that same day, the spokesman said only that Mr. Barlyn was fired.

“It was one outright vulgar lie after another,” Mr. Barlyn said.

That same month, Charles M. Ouslander, the Hunterdon office’s first assistant prosecutor, was forced to retire, he said in an interview. Records show that Mr. Ouslander, a political independent, had many impeccable job evaluations.

Also that September, Mr. O’Grady called in Mr. McGovern, who had directly handled the case against Sheriff Trout. In an interview, Mr. McGovern declined to talk about the grand jury or the case, citing secrecy rules. He agreed to discuss his exit.

“They asked me to stay because they valued my work,” Mr. McGovern said. “But, it was conditioned upon remaining silent about the sheriff’s case, and not raising more complaints about the dismissal of the indictments with my supervisors. Believing that the dismissals were unjust, I was in an untenable position.

“I realized,” he continued, “I would be under the thumb of these people and they could fire me at any time, so I just put in my papers and left early.”

Mr. McGovern has since filed his intent to sue, accusing state officials of conspiring to quash the indictments.

A Fight to See Records

The case of the killed indictments remains very much alive. This August, a Superior Court judge ordered the attorney general to release grand jury records to Mr. Barlyn, who argues that the transcripts will show that the indictment the office brought was solid and that he was fired for standing up against its “corrupt” dismissal. The judge, without taking sides on the merits of the lawsuit, agreed that the transcripts could be central to his case.

The attorney general, who sent five lawyers into court to handle this civil suit in August, argued that the release of the records “degrades the secrecy” of such proceedings, and has appealed. Ms. Dow, the former attorney general, is expected to sit for questioning in a deposition by Mr. Barlyn’s lawyer.

No one in Hunterdon has forgotten the case, and many eyes turn to Trenton.

“If I had the governor standing here in front of me, I’d ask him what happened,” said George B. Melick, a Republican freeholder. “Because that’s where it goes back to: Trenton.”

As for Ms. Dow, Governor Christie appointed her in January 2012 to a $215,000 post at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Later that year, he nominated her to the Superior Court. State senators asked about the Hunterdon case at her successful confirmation hearing. “With respect to the allegations, I deny them,” she said.

Ms. Dow, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment for this article, saying the lawsuit was still active.

The grand jurors’ wounds have not healed. “I still get angry,” one said. “It was shameful and I keep trying to put it behind me because it was so obvious this was about politics.”

As for Mr. Barlyn, 47, he said he mourned the loss of his career as a prosecutor. “It’s the one job that requires you do the right thing for the right reasons all the time,” he said.

That ended for him. A father of three, he now teaches at a middle school.

“I think about what happened all the time; it wasn’t subtle,” he said. “In the end, it’s easy to get rid of a prosecutor. But it raises that question: In New Jersey, who watches the watchman?”

Original article

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