A PART OF CAMPAIGNING - Public records searches provide political fodder

Public records searches provide political fodder

07/06/2007  Asbury Park Press

TRENTON — The state's Open Public Records Act helps the news media expose the doings of government and empowers residents to learn how and why their tax dollars are spent.

But it has also become a resource in political campaigns, as operatives look for records to prove allegations that an opponent held a no-show job, engaged in a shady business deal or received a favorable tax arrangement.

"OPRA may have had an unintended effect," said Carl Golden, who was press secretary for Govs. Thomas H. Kean and Christie Whitman. "It proved to be an absolute bonanza for opposition research people in political campaigns."

Now, as a consultant, Golden cautions politicians that their entire public life is open to inspection because of OPRA.

"There's nothing like hard copy," said Chris Lyon, a Republican operative from New York who has worked on state and federal campaigns in New Jersey. "Facts are stubborn things, so politicians talk and the spinmeisters spin, but the actual documents actually tell their own stories."

Most campaigns use OPRA, but most requests come up empty. Researchers also request their opponents' requests to get an idea of what their candidate may face.

Sometimes the filing of a request about a legislative matter is mentioned to the target of the records inquiry.

"There was one instance, and I'm not going to tell you who, but just as a little bit of a tester, I went to the Assembly Majority office and made a request for some personal financial documents," Lyon said. "Within hours I got a call from a friendly consultant, saying, 'Chris, what are you doing?' "

Political researchers, often secretive by nature, offered different accounts of how extensively OPRA is used for opposition research. Some say it's a key tool, others said it's neither the starting point nor end-all in backgrounding an opponent.

"The basic premise is you ask for everything because you never know what you might find," said Tom Wilson, chairman of the Republican State Committee.

Deadlines prove useful

The biggest improvement resulting from the 2002 law, operatives said, is the seven-business-day deadline imposed on government to reply to requests, making getting records quicker with a definite endpoint. Even so, several politicians — especially those at the local level seeking to oust an incumbent — have hit roadblocks trying to get information to use in campaigns.

"Usually by the time the campaigns don't get the stuff, the election's over, and for the most part the issues that were hot during the campaign become moot for the campaigns," said Ed Trawinski, a lawyer and member of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government who has also used OPRA during his campaigns for municipal office in Fair Lawn. He also lost a state Assembly campaign in 2003.

And sometimes, the request itself becomes part of the story.

Next month, state Republicans will be in court trying to force Gov. Corzine to comply with their OPRA request for e-mails he exchanged with his former girlfriend, labor leader Carla Katz, during recent budget negotiations.

Corzine's administration has argued the e-mails should not be released because they are private and protected by executive privilege.

Whatever the outcome, it's hard to picture one that wouldn't be used in the Republicans' 2009 campaign to win the governor's seat, should Corzine seek a second term.

"If we find in those e-mails, and in other communications, what I believe is there, it will play a significant role in his re-election," said Wilson, who authored the records request. "And if it's not in there, I don't know why he would be so unwilling to exonerate himself."

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