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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Vetting Report to Remain Confidential, Court Rules

(CN) - A New Jersey appeals court refused to release redacted portions of a background check on the governor's pick for police superintendent, requested by people who claimed they were retaliated against based on their contributions to the investigative report.

The state police conducted a "four-way investigation" to vet Newark Police Director Joseph Santiago for the position of superintendent of the state police. The investigation involved FBI background check and interviews with Santiago's associates.

Three groups of people with connections to the report - including state troopers and investigators - claimed they were transferred or denied promotions for criticizing Santiago or simply being associated with people who criticized the prospective police superintendent.

Asserting executive privilege, the state police said the report was exempt from public disclosure.

In August 2007, the trial court ordered the release of redacted portions of the report and denied the defendants' motion for reconsideration.

The appeals court reversed, for two reasons. First, the lower court mistakenly grouped all plaintiffs together, even though they have different interests in the investigation. Second, the court failed to balance the public's interest in protecting investigators who are simply doing their jobs with the governor's right to make decisions "freely and effectively under the mantle of privacy and security," Judge Winkelstein wrote.

The trial court also should've considered the chilling effect disclosure could have on the interviewees who offered the information, the judge added.

"Plaintiffs either have not shown the requisite interest to entitle them to disclosure of the privileged documents," Winkelstein wrote, "or to the extent that such interest has been demonstrated, their interests do not outweigh the public's interest in keeping the report confidential."

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