JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) — A former assistant prosecutor on Tuesday argued for access to secret grand jury transcripts as he tries to show that he was fired for complaining to superiors who were under pressure from high-ranking state officials, possibly including Gov. Chris Christie.
Bennett Barlyn is suing the state over his 2010 firing from the Hunterdon County prosecutor’s office.
The lawsuit doesn’t name Christie, but it has taken on a different complexion in light of recent revelations that a member of the governor’s staff apparently ordered lane closures at the George Washington Bridge last fall for political retribution. There also have been accusations that his lieutenant governor told Hoboken’s mayor that Superstorm Sandy aid was tied to her approval of a politically connected real estate development. Federal prosecutors and a legislative committee are investigating.
The undercurrent was evident Tuesday when Robert Lytle, an attorney representing Barlyn, told the three-judge panel that emails and memos probably wouldn’t provide direct evidence of a politically motivated act.
“Never say never,” Judge Carmen Messano interjected, drawing chuckles from the gallery.
Barlyn worked in the prosecutor’s office for several years and was on its team in the lengthy manslaughter trial of former NBA star Jayson Williams. He is now working as a schoolteacher.
His lawsuit centers on his firing after an indictment was dropped against former Hunterdon County Sheriff Deborah Trout, Undersheriff Michael Russo and sheriff’s investigator John Falat Jr. He says he was wrongly fired after he complained to a superior that the indictment had been dropped for political reasons.
Barlyn didn’t specify the amount of damages he is seeking, but a notice of intent to sue filed in December 2010 estimated the amount at $3 million.
Christie has denied on several occasions that he had anything to do with the dropping of the indictment, which charged the three sheriff’s office officials with misconduct and falsification of employment records.
According to Barlyn’s lawsuit, a material witness in the sheriff’s investigation was Dr. Robert Hariri, who with his wife donated more than $10,000 to Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign and later was part of the Republican governor’s transition team.
The lawsuit claims Russo may have given a fake law enforcement ID card to Hariri, who wasn’t charged in the case. The lawsuit also contends Russo told a reporter that Christie would step in and “have this whole thing thrown out.”
The state attorney general’s office eventually took over the case and dropped the charges in 2010, citing legal and factual problems with the indictment. Barlyn was suspended the day after the dismissal, his lawsuit alleges.
Barlyn now wants access to transcripts and other grand jury materials to help his lawsuit. Lytle argued Tuesday that the material’s relevance to the lawsuit outweighs the need to keep them secret.
Representing the state, Deputy Attorney General Jane Greenfogel argued that as an outside party unrelated to the investigation, Barlyn has no claim to the materials and that releasing them would damage the grand jury process by making future witnesses reluctant to testify.
The appeals court is expected to rule in the next several weeks. The case could then be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Lytle said he was confident Barlyn would prevail in the lawsuit even if the grand jury materials remain off-limits.
“What recent events have shown us is that where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” he said. “In this case there are smoke alarms going off all over the place.”