Asm. John McKeon Wants Changes for Whistleblower Cases

New Jersey taxpayers have been on the hook for $5.3 million in connection with a lawsuit filed by a whistleblower. And the interested parties, including Chris Christie supporters and a politically connected law firm, are prohibited from discussing anything about the Barlyn case. Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair John McKeon is demanding details and has already sponsored legislation that would prevent this type of settlement from happening in the future. NJTV News Correspondent Michael Hill spoke with him.

Hill: What is the Barlyn case in Hunterdon County?

McKeon: Well it had to do with a two-year investigation concerning the Hunterdon County sheriff. The sheriff, as well as the under-sheriff and one of the chief investigators, were indicted — 42-count indictment — and then administrations changed. And within about six months of the Christie administration taking over, the attorney general’s office took the extraordinary step of having the 42-count indictment quashed. That let to Mr. Barlyn — who is a lifelong, 20-year prosecutor — speaking his conscience and saying that was quashed for the wrong reasons, and he was immediately  terminated and then filed a civil whistleblower statute. So very recently, in August of this year, that civil lawsuit settled and that’s what resulted in the legislation relative to not keeping confidential something deriving from a whistleblower’s case, as well as giving the Legislature a chance to hear Mr. Barlyn’s side of the story to the extent that he was allowed to tell it.

Hill: Taxpayers on the hook for $5.3 million in this case.

McKeon: Well can you imagine a $1.5 million settlement plus another $4 million in attorney fees — $5.5 million and the linchpin to the settlement was keeping all of that information that he spoke out about confidential. That just shocks my conscience as the right thing to do.

Hill: You’ve asked the attorney general, state attorney general to release or to get rid of the confidentiality in this case and let the public see what happened here.

McKeon: Well we paid $5.5 million for it, I mean it’s just an opposite to be able to use taxpayer money to obfuscate the bad conduct that was, you know, spoken out about to begin with is just, again, that goes against not only the statue, but against the public good. It passed 73 to nothing in the Assembly and we have a Senate version that’s going to move so, in a bipartisan way this is just right. Anything involving a public entity or a public employee, whistleblower statute should never be kept confidential.

Hill: Why do you think you had no opposition?

McKeon: Well because it’s the right thing to do. This is clear. How could one of good conscience say you could spend public money to, you know, again obfuscate what was bad conduct? The whole point of the legislation is to allow employees to speak freely. So then to allow them to sue … they’re not allowed to sue to put money in their pocket. They’re supposed to sue not only to compensate them, to be fair to them, but then to a expose the conduct that they spoke about to begin with.

Hill: Give me a sense of what you think is there, there.

McKeon: Look, I’ve said it on record, I’ll say it to you again. I think what happen at least from the facts as I know them to be compared to Bridgegate is frankly child play. I mean we’re talking about a 42-count criminal indictment relative to basically selling phony or false sheriff’s credentials. It was … and then to quash that and to take the extraordinary step to not allow the grand jury’s recommendations to go forward before a jury of peers, is pretty intensive. And I mean it wasn’t just the AG that made that decision. There were memos going back and forth between the governor’s office, the AG’s office back to the temporary prosecutor. All those things should be made public. I want to know what was said to who, and why.

Hill: The response to your request to the state attorney general. Any response?

McKeon: Crickets. We haven’t heard a thing yet. We’ll give them a little bit of time, maybe thinking it, you know, from a favorable light, that they’re considering it. But if we don’t hear soon, then we’re going to take the next step, maybe have several of the other prosecutors that were also punished that were part of the original criminal investigation come testify before the Judiciary Committee, and then maybe go back to the Assembly and ask for subpoena power.

Hill: What does your bill do? Requires what?

McKeon: Well it just requires that any whistleblower statute in the future, any settlement between a public entity and a public employee not be made confidential. That doesn’t mean you can’t settle them. That doesn’t mean you can’t put a provision in there calling them to, you know, as if they’re settling, and no one is claiming any fault, but as it relates to any of the materials deriving from that litigation, that has to be a matter of public record.

Hill: Even in sensitive cases?

McKeon: Sensitive, Homeland Security there would be an exception, but other than that, no. Why exceptions at all?