Friday, August 13, 2010

Bloomfield turns over e-mail, pays almost $5,000 in attorney fees

On June 11, 2010, Montclair Attorney Richard Gutman filed suit on my behalf against Bloomfield Township (Essex County) to force disclosure of an e-mail sent by the Essex County Prosecutor's Office to a Bloomfield Councilwoman. (Paff v. Bloomfield, Docket No. ESX-L-4384-10). Background on the suit, as well as the lawsuit documents, can be found here.

On August 10, 2010, the Township of Bloomfield (Essex County) decided to give me the e-mail that I sued to obtain. And, Bloomfield agreed to pay $4,913 for my costs of suit and Mr. Gutman's attorney fees. A copy of the e-mail that was provided is on-line here.

I believe that Bloomfield taxpayers have good reason to ask their elected officials why nearly $5,000 was paid in order to suppress a record that even the Township concedes is not exempt from disclosure.

An article on the disclosure and the payment of attorney fees follows.

John Paff
Somerset, New Jersey

Detective's e-mail: Bloomfield under investigation
Thursday, August 12, 2010
BY JEFF FRANKEL
Bloomfield Life
of Bloomfield Life

BLOOMFIELD - The township has settled out of court with a government watchdog who was seeking correspondences between the prosecutor's office and a council member.

As part of the settlement with Somerset County resident John Paff, the township released an e-mail between an Essex County Prosecutor's Office detective and Councilwoman Patricia Spychala and will pay Paff $4,913 in costs and legal fees. Paff, chairman of the Libertarian Party Open Government Advocacy Project, accused the township of violating the state's Open Public Records Act.

Now that he's seen at least part of the conversation, Paff said he does not understand why the information he requested was not immediately released. To him, it appears there was nothing damaging anyone's reputation.

"The e-mail is innocuous," wrote Paff to Bloomfield Life. "It does nothing more than confirm what I already knew - that the prosecutor's office was conducting some sort of investigation involving Bloomfield. It's hard to understand why the township dug in its heels and spent so much money trying to suppress this e-mail.

"I suppose, however, that with a bottomless well of taxpayer dollars at its disposal, the township administration can afford to make these types of decisions."

These are some the same documents Bloomfield Life has tried obtaining for several months. There is a caveat: a letter and e-mail between Township Attorney Brian Aloia and Spychala's personal attorney Edward Kologi are not yet released. It is unclear if and when the township will release them.

Calls made to Spychala and Aloia were not immediately returned Thursday.

According to the complaint first filed in April, Paff requested the specific e-mail through OPRA but was denied by Municipal Clerk Louise Palagano, who said it was protected under attorney-client privilege.

OPRA records must be turned over to anyone requesting them no longer than seven business days. Some documents - such as budgets and bills - are subject to immediate access. But there are 24 exemptions, including "any record within the attorney-client privilege," according to the state.

Superior Court Judge James Rothschild was scheduled to hear the OPRA case on Sept. 16 at the Historic Courthouse in Newark.

"Our office is currently conducting an investigation concerning certain allegations involving the Township of Bloomfield and believe that you may have information which could assist that investigation," reads one sentence of the entire four-sentence e-mail from Det. David Campo to Spychala.

For Paff, he can see now that there is certainly no exemption that would have kept the public from seeing this e-mail, as Campo asks Spychala to call him to be interviewed.

"The attorney-client privilege doesn't even arguably apply, and there is no reason why the township couldn't have just turned the e-mail over to me when I requested it," Paff wrote.

E-mail: frankel@northjersey.com

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