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N.J. Improperly Withheld George Washington Bridge Info, Judge Rules

By Stephanie Akin, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

HACKENSACK, N.J. — New Jersey state officials improperly withheld records related to the investigations of George Washington Bridge lane closings from two reporters from The Record, a Superior Court judge ruled in Mercer County on Wednesday.

In a mixed 22-page decision, Judge P.J. Innes ordered the state to pay the legal fees incurred by North Jersey Media Group, which publishes The Record, to fight the state’s blanket denial of four public records requests filed by its reporters in February and March. But Innes upheld the state’s contention that some of the information requested by the reporters should not be released.

At issue were current and former state employees’ written requests for the state to appoint them attorneys or pay their legal fees resulting from the fallout from the September lane closings, which have been the subject of parallel criminal and legislative investigations that have threatened to derail the Chris Christie administration and the governor’s hopes for a 2016 presidential run.

The state implicitly acknowledged that the reporters, Michael Phillis and Shawn Boburg, had a legal right to at least some of the correspondence between the state and the employees in question when it released several documents, including the names and hourly rates of five law firms it had hired, after the newspaper company sued, Innes ruled.

The judge also ordered the state to release any written response denying its employees’ requests for legal representation. Those documents, if they exist, were also improperly withheld from the reporters, the ruling said.

But the judge upheld the state’s contention that the names of the employees should remain confidential under attorney-client privilege. Those names were blacked out of the documents released to The Record.

“We are reviewing the decision and considering our legal options,” said Leland Moore, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office.

North Jersey Media Group plans to appeal the decision, said Jennifer Borg, the company’s general counsel and vice president.

“Taxpayers are entitled to know who is getting the benefit of costly legal services all at their expense,” she said.

She added that state law gives the Attorney General’s Office discretion to approve or deny employees’ requests for legal reimbursement. “Without knowing the names of the employees, the public has no way of knowing if the (attorney general) properly exercised his authority,” she said.

The company has not yet calculated its total legal fees for the case, Borg said.

The lawsuit was one of three the newspaper has filed seeking records related to the lane-closure investigations.

Two cases, fighting for the release of emails, text messages, and other correspondence exchanged between current and former officials from the state, the Port Authority and the Christie 2013 gubernatorial campaign, are pending. The newspaper also has three unrelated public records lawsuits pending against the Christie administration.

Photo: Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

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Married Status Adds New Wrinkle To Tax Time For Married Gays

by Stephanie Akin, The Record

Tax time has been described as anxiety-inducing and unnecessarily confusing, and its inescapability has even been equated with death. Now, it’s a reason for celebration — at least for same-sex couples who for the first time can check off the box that says “married” on their 1040s.

Tim Eustace and his husband, Kevin, marked the occasion by going out to dinner in downtown Maywood, N.J., where they live. Jeff Farlow, 30, of Pine Hill posted his refund on Facebook. And Jeff Gardner, 45, of Hawthorne described a visit to the accountant with this incongruous adjective: “Momentous.”

Filing as a newly married couple entails its own set of headaches, and filing for the first time as a same-sex married couple comes with an assortment of questions. But many said the symbolic significance is worth the hassle — at least this time around.

“It’s another act that points out that the government legally recognizes us as a legitimate couple,” said Charles Cumpston, a retired publishing executive from Fort Lee. “That’s pretty incredible.”

For many, the status means a huge reduction in paperwork, lower bills for tax preparation and a bigger refund. But the transition hasn’t been completely without its glitches — this is a tax issue, after all.

Some have dealt with setbacks familiar to any married couple, including the realization that they fall in the group that pays the so-called marriage penalty. Married people often begin to pay more than they would if they were single as a couple’s joint income increases, regardless of whether they file jointly or as a married couple filing separately.

Some couples who fall in the opposite category, those who get a bigger refund filing jointly, are working to get reimbursed for past taxes they paid as single filers while they had civil unions or marriages recognized in other states.

And couples who were legally married in one state, but work in a state that doesn’t recognize gay marriage face another challenge: filing separate state tax returns as individuals there, a reminder, they said, of why a nationwide debate is still raging.

In New Jersey, couples with civil unions have been allowed to file jointly since 2008. But they still had to file separate federal forms as single people, which in many cases almost doubled their tax preparation fees, said Ted Carnevale, a CPA and chief executive officer at Gramkow Carnevale Seifert & Co. in Oradell.

The elimination of that requirement means that the same tax rules apply to married couples claiming all their income in New Jersey, regardless of their sexual orientation. But some couples still have a lot of questions, Carnevale said.

“You could have people who have been life partners together for a long time, and now their tax (situation) has changed dramatically,” he said. “They have been used to being together and filing a certain way.”

Carnevale said some couples are also confused about whether they can file joint federal returns if they have a civil union and aren’t married — they can’t.

But not every couple has managed a seamless transition to their new tax status, said accountant Phil Goldstein of Goldstein Lieberman & Co.

One pair of longtime clients has been agonizing over the news that their marriage would eliminate one spouse’s $6,000 refund, although it would mean an $11,000 savings for the higher-earning partner, he said.

“The one who made more said, ‘If it’s costing us more to be married than if we were single, I think we should separate,'” he said. The couple eventually resolved their differences and decided to stay together.

But, he added, he saw the dispute as another sign of marriage equality: it was a version of an argument he’d seen between dozens of heterosexual couples over the years.

“It doesn’t make a difference if it’s a heterosexual couple or a gay couple,” he said. “Money is money, and people fight over it.”

Photo: AgriLife Today via Flickr

Married Status Adds New Wrinkle To Tax Time For Married Gays

By Stephanie Akin, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

Tax time has been described as anxiety-inducing and unnecessarily confusing, and its inescapability has even been equated with death. Now, it’s a reason for celebration — at least for same-sex couples who for the first time can check off the box that says “married” on their 1040s.

Tim Eustace and his husband, Kevin, marked the occasion by going out to dinner in downtown Maywood, N.J., where they live. Jeff Farlow, 30, of Pine Hill posted his refund on Facebook. And Jeff Gardner, 45, of Hawthorne described a visit to the accountant with this incongruous adjective: “Momentous.”

Filing as a newly married couple entails its own set of headaches, and filing for the first time as a same-sex married couple comes with an assortment of questions. But many said the symbolic significance is worth the hassle — at least this time around.

“It’s another act that points out that the government legally recognizes us as a legitimate couple,” said Charles Cumpston, a retired publishing executive from Fort Lee. “That’s pretty incredible.”

For many, the status means a huge reduction in paperwork, lower bills for tax preparation and a bigger refund. But the transition hasn’t been completely without its glitches — this is a tax issue, after all.

Some have dealt with setbacks familiar to any married couple, including the realization that they fall in the group that pays the so-called marriage penalty. Married people often begin to pay more than they would if they were single as a couple’s joint income increases, regardless of whether they file jointly or as a married couple filing separately.

Some couples who fall in the opposite category, those who get a bigger refund filing jointly, are working to get reimbursed for past taxes they paid as single filers while they had civil unions or marriages recognized in other states.

And couples who were legally married in one state, but work in a state that doesn’t recognize gay marriage face another challenge: filing separate state tax returns as individuals there, a reminder, they said, of why a nationwide debate is still raging.

In New Jersey, couples with civil unions have been allowed to file jointly since 2008. But they still had to file separate federal forms as single people, which in many cases almost doubled their tax preparation fees, said Ted Carnevale, a CPA and chief executive officer at Gramkow Carnevale Seifert & Co. in Oradell.

The elimination of that requirement means that the same tax rules apply to married couples claiming all their income in New Jersey, regardless of their sexual orientation. But some couples still have a lot of questions, Carnevale said.

“You could have people who have been life partners together for a long time, and now their tax (situation) has changed dramatically,” he said. “They have been used to being together and filing a certain way.”

Carnevale said some couples are also confused about whether they can file joint federal returns if they have a civil union and aren’t married — they can’t.

But not every couple has managed a seamless transition to their new tax status, said accountant Phil Goldstein of Goldstein Lieberman & Co.

One pair of longtime clients has been agonizing over the news that their marriage would eliminate one spouse’s $6,000 refund, although it would mean an $11,000 savings for the higher-earning partner, he said.

“The one who made more said, ‘If it’s costing us more to be married than if we were single, I think we should separate,’” he said. The couple eventually resolved their differences and decided to stay together.

But, he added, he saw the dispute as another sign of marriage equality: it was a version of an argument he’d seen between dozens of heterosexual couples over the years.

“It doesn’t make a difference if it’s a heterosexual couple or a gay couple,” he said. “Money is money, and people fight over it.”

AFP Photo/Scott Olson

Internal Report Clears Christie In Bridge Lane Closures

By Stephanie Akin, The Record

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Two former high-level Christie appointees share almost exclusive blame for the George Washington Bridge lane closures, according to a report commissioned by the Christie administration that concludes New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and current members of his staff were not involved in the closures and other allegations of impropriety that surfaced in the wake of the scandal.

Bridget Kelly, a deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office who was fired in January, and David Wildstein, a Port Authority official who resigned in December, planned and carried out the September lane closings, the 360 page report said.

“It was Wildstein’s ‘idea,'” the report reads, “like so many other ‘crazy’ ones he’d had before that never got off the ground.”

The report also addresses suggestions made by Wildstein that he mentioned the Fort Lee issue to the governor at a public event during the lane closures, but says the governor “recalls no such exchange.” It goes on to say that if the conversation did take place it “would not have registered with the Governor in any event because he knew nothing about this decision in advance and would not have considered another traffic issue at one of the bridges or tunnels to be memorable.”

Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive of the Port Authority who resigned in December, and Bill Stepien, the governor’s former campaign manager, knew of the lane closures but not of any ulterior motives behind them, according to the report. The report also says that Stepien and Kelly were involved in a “personal relationship” that “cooled” a month before the lane closures.

The report also found no merit to a related allegation that Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno and other staffers tried to strong-arm Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer into fast-tracking a real estate development in exchange for Sandy aid.

New York law firm Gibson and Dunn compiled the report, which acknowledges that key people — including Kelly, Zimmer, and Stepien — were not interviewed. However, federal prosecutors investigating the scandal have sat with Zimmer regarding her allegations. The report also was done without interviewing Port Authority Chairman David Samson.

The report, which reportedly cost $1 million to complete, lays out in detail the events leading up to the bridge closings and what it describes as the highly charged atmosphere in the Christie administration as outside pressure built to explain what happened. At one point, it said, Christie held a meeting with inside staffers at which he stood the whole time and spoke loudly.

At another, when he announced his decision to fire Kelly for “lying to him” about the lane closures and severing ties with Stepien, he was, “welling up with tears.”

The lane closures were carried out, at least in part, to target Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, the report says. But it finds no clear motivations.

“The common speculation that this was an act of political retaliation because Mayor Sokolich failed to endorse the Governor for re-election is not established by the evidence that we have seen,” it reads.

But as public pressure mounted, Wildstein and Kelly tried to delete personal emails that showed their planning. Wildstein and Baroni told members of the Christie administration it was a legitimate traffic study, and Wildstein coached Baroni to testify to that effect at a November Assembly hearing on the issue, the report reads.

By December, Wildstein realized that he had to resign, the report reads. While he continued to insist that it was a legitimate traffic study, he told Christie officials it was his idea, the report reads.

He also tried to deflect the blame, telling Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak, who he met for dinner as he was preparing his resignation, that Kelly and Stepien also knew, and that he had the emails to prove it, the report reads. He also said he had mentioned the “issue in Fort Lee” to the governor at a public event during the lane realignment. The governor does not recall the conversation, the report said.

Drewniak then reported Wildstein’s claims to the governor’s office, as did others who had heard rumors about Kelly’s emails, the report read.

The governor held a meeting on Dec. 12 demanding answers from his staff and had asked Kelly and Stepien about the issue directly, the report said. Both denied any involvement, and Kelly told the governor’s chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, she had searched her emails, even showing him a couple, the report read.

“But Kelly was nevertheless panicked by what she considered to be O’Dowd’s ‘grilling,'” the report read. “She called her staffer, Christina Renna, that same night to make a desperate request: delete the email that Kelly sent to Renna on Sept. 12, 2013, where Kelly, upon learning Mayor Sokolich was “extremely upset,” responded: ‘Good.'”

Renna, who has also since resigned, preserved a copy of the email, the report said.

During a press conference Thursday, Randy Mastro, the lead attorney for Gibson Dunn, said that the motivation remains unclear.

“David Wildstein is the person who originated this idea and orchestrated it,” Mastro said. “They had an ulterior motive for implementing that decision. We are not able to answer what that ulterior motive was.”

Throughout the report, Governor Christie is consistently portrayed as being unaware of what his staff was doing regarding the lane closures and when he did find out, the report claims, he acted decisively. The language in the report is also derisive of those who are found to be at fault, particularly Wildstein and Kelly, who are portrayed as rogue political operatives acting independently. The report also questions Kelly’s ability to run the office she headed, calling her “inexperienced.”

Mastro, at the press event in Manhattan, was questioned on the impartiality of the report.

“It’s a search for the truth, and we believe we have gotten to the truth,” he said. “We will be judged at the end of the day by whether we got this right, we intended to get it right, we believe we got it right. As to the most important questions, we believe we got it right.”

The report concludes with several recommendations. They include:

  • Restricting the use of personal email for official business.
  • Eliminating the office that Kelly headed, called the Intergovernmental Affairs Office, which the report says has been tainted by the scandal.
  • Creating and ombudsman who would be responsible for receiving and responding to complaints within the governor’s office and periodically issuing public reports.
  • Appointing an ethics officer to oversee ethics conflicts in the governor’s office and train staff members.
  • Reorganizing leadership structure of Port Authority to ensure its independence and eliminate divisions between New York and New Jersey that were revealed by the controversy.

AFP Photo/Eric Thayer