Former Democratic State Sen. Ray Lesniak is having another go at prying loose documents from the Murphy administration tied to former Gov. Chris Christie’s controversial $225 million settlement of a pollution lawsuit against Exxon Mobil Corp.
Lesniak said he was moved to make the new bid by Gov. Phil Murphy’s decision to hire Ted Wells, the defense attorney for Exxon Mobil in the case, to handle his own defense in a suit filed by South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross in connection with the administration’s tax break inquiry.
“Governor Murphy retaining Exxon Mobil attorney Ted Wells in the lawsuit filed by George Norcross opened up an ‘old wound’ and spurred me to [pursue] a new effort to determine how much the Christie administration gave away in addition to the meager $225 million settlement of an $8.9 billion damage claim,” said Lesniak, a vocal critic of the settlement.
Lesniak said he had no problem with Wells himself and the Murphy administration’s decision to hire Wells as the legal defense in the Norcross suit.
Norcross filed that suit in response to scrutiny from the Murphy administration into whether businesses with strong ties to Norcross influenced he tax break program.
Lesniak previously filed the Open Public Records Request with the Christie-era Department of Environmental Protection, where he sought the damage assessments for 16 sites connected to Exxon Mobil’s Bayonne and Linden refinery, on top of damage assessments for 1,768 gas stations, all of which were part of the settlement.
He filed the OPRA request again in 2018 with the DEP, anticipating that the agency under Gov. Phil Murphy would be more open to providing the documents. But the DEP rebuffed him again.
This time, the DEP argued that the documents were protected under attorney-client privilege, that they did not constitute public records or that they were classified as pre-litigation documents.
Lesniak told NJBIZ he wants to “get to the bottom of this so the public knows exactly what Christie gave away.”
Christie drew criticism for agreeing to the $225 million settlement in 2015 rather than the $8.9 billion the state initially sought.
The Murphy administration went to court last year to block Lesniak and several environmental organizations from further challenging the settlement a month after an appeallate panel upheld the agreement.
“Murphy should not have sided with Christie in defending the settlement,” Lesniak said. “At the very least, we should let the public see what exactly was in that settlement… If they’re going to deny it again and keep this information from the public, I’ll have to take it to the appellate division.”
A spokesperson for the governor’s office and the Office of the Attorney General both declined to comment.