Trenton — The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection believes the public has no right to know which lobbyists or corporate lawyers meet with its top officials or what they discuss according to records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The group today filed a rulemaking petition that would force the DEP to publicly disclose its private off-the-record meetings with regulated industries, corporate associations and their lobbyists.
On April 20, 2007, DEP denied a PEER request filed under the state Open Public Records Act (OPRA) for sign-in logs at DEP as well as for a copy of the DEP Commissioner’s schedule. The agency denied the request citing “executive privilege.” In addition, the DEP denial contained this ironic rationale:
“Also, the presence and sequence of person consulted could reveal the substance or direction of the people meeting with the Commissioner or Department staff.”
“Well, duh – that is precisely why the logs and calendars are so important, because they indicate what is really going on inside this supposedly public agency,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, who is also appealing the OPRA denial. “Unfortunately, New Jersey has a rich and continuing pattern of scandals hatched in secret meetings between state officials and corporate favor seekers.”
Today PEER filed a petition for DEP rulemaking asking that the “pay-to-play” and ethics reforms be extended to cover the influence of special interests within state regulatory agencies. The petition calls for public disclosure of agency meeting logs, agendas and calendars. These records are considered public records by federal agencies under the Freedom of Information Act.
PEER points to several recent high-profile criminal convictions and ethics investigations as underlining the need to expose corruption and improper influence on DEP regulatory approvals, including:
- The conviction of former State Senator John Lynch for his role in seeking favorable treatment;
- The controversial development of Petty’s Island where an influential South Jersey political boss exerted behind-the-scenes influence on the McGreevey administration; and
- The Meadowlands Encap project where developers hired a politically-connected lobbying firm to obtain DEP permit reviews and loans of more than $200 million for the project.
The PEER petition also calls for repeal of the DEP gag order that forbids its specialists from answering questions from reporters or the public without approval from the agency Press Office.
“DEP is employing the same restraints on information now used by the Bush administration,” Wolfe added. “If ever an agency could use a dose of sunshine, it is our DEP.’