N.J.’s top court delivers transparency win in records fight over jail guard’s retirement

By: - March 7, 2022 12:43 pm

New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner (Courtesy of New Jersey Courts)

The New Jersey Supreme Court has ordered Cumberland County to publicly release a settlement agreement that allowed a correctional officer to retire in good standing, despite his admission he had “inappropriate relationships” with two inmates and brought contraband into the county jail.

Monday’s ruling will protect public access to all settlement agreements involving public agencies, advocates for transparency say. It overturns an appellate decision that declared such agreements personnel records exempt from disclosure.

“This is a great win for transparency,” said attorney CJ Griffin, who argued the case for plaintiff Libertarians for Transparent Government. “It’s a very basic concept – we’re entitled to see records, and we don’t have to rely on what the government tells us.”

Justice Stuart Rabner, writing for the unanimous court, said public agencies have an obligation to disclose government records, and under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA), the records themselves — and not a summary — must be made available for inspection, copying, or examination.

“OPRA enables the public to play a role in guarding against corruption and misconduct,” Rabner wrote. “Without access to actual documents in cases like this, the public can be left with incomplete or incorrect information. Access to public records fosters transparency, accountability, and candor. That applies to questions about sexual abuse in prison as well as the overall operation of prison facilities and other aspects of government.”

The Libertarians’ case stems from a 2017 lawsuit filed by a woman incarcerated at the Cumberland County Jail, who said she had been forced to engage in non-consensual sex acts with several correctional officers on a regular basis, including one named Tyrone Ellis.

The Libertarians group, in trying to learn more about the allegations, obtained the minutes from a 2018 public meeting of the Board of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, which was considering Ellis’ application for “special retirement.”

According to those minutes, the county initially charged Ellis with a disciplinary infraction for “improper fraternization” with two inmates and tried to terminate him. The county later dismissed the disciplinary charge and allowed him to retire in good standing —with a reduced pension — because he admitted his misconduct, entered into a settlement agreement with the county, and cooperated with authorities investigating four of his colleagues accused of similar misconduct, Monday’s decision says.

The Libertarians filed an OPRA request for the settlement agreement, and the county refused to release it, responding only that “Officer Ellis was charged with a disciplinary infraction and was terminated.”

Such lies and misrepresentations from public officials are why this ruling is so important, Griffin said.

“OPRA is a law that exists so that we get to check under the hood and poke around for ourselves, rather than just rely on what a public agency tells us,” she said. “In this case, we knew what the public agency told us was false. The Supreme Court ordered this common-sense ruling so that we get to see the truth. We don’t have to rely on their spin or misrepresentation.”

County Counsel John Carr said the county will release the agreement, as the court ordered.

“The county values transparency in government but is forced to implement disclosure as and when it is appropriate under applicable law,” Carr said. “On this appeal, the Supreme Court noted the unique question posed after the Appellate Court ruled and issued needed clarification which the County will implement.”

Several groups filed amicus briefs supporting the Libertarians’ case. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey argued public access to settlement agreements helps curb abuse, which they said is rampant and underreported behind bars, by creating accountability.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.