NEWARK, N.J. — A former New Jersey prosecutor who claimed he was fired because he alleged the state dismissed an indictment because it involved supporters of Gov. Chris Christie has received a $1.5 million settlement, ending a six-year legal saga that has cost taxpayers more than double that amount in attorney fees.
The settlement in the whistleblower lawsuit by former Hunterdon County assistant prosecutor Bennett Barlyn was reached in June and finalized last week. In a statement, Barlyn said it was a “private vindication” but added he is prohibited by terms of the settlement from providing a full public accounting of the case.
The state attorney general’s office, which defended the lawsuit, said Monday it stands by its decision to dismiss the indictment and that “the decision to settle this employment matter was an economic one, driven by the anticipated costs associated with litigating the case to verdict. We believe we would have prevailed in court.”
Barlyn was suspended then fired in the fall of 2010, not long after the attorney general’s office took over Hunterdon County’s case against then-Sheriff Deborah Trout and two subordinates, who had been indicted on 43 criminal counts including official misconduct and falsification of employment records.
The state asked the judge to dismiss the indictment because it deemed it legally deficient — a step almost never taken by prosecutors once a grand jury has spoken, Barlyn contended. No attempt was made by the state to correct the alleged deficiencies and resubmit the case to a grand jury, he said.
Robert Hariri, an executive for biotech company Celgene and a member of Christie’s transition team in 2010, was interviewed in connection with the case but wasn’t charged. Hariri and his wife had donated thousands of dollars to Christie’s campaign, according to campaign finance records. Barlyn’s suit contended Hariri had been given a fake law enforcement ID by defendant Michael Russo, then Hunterdon County’s undersheriff.
Trout and Russo were active supporters of Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign, and Russo allegedly told a reporter Christie would “have this whole thing thrown out,” Barlyn’s lawsuit claimed. An attorney representing Trout, Russo and former investigator John Falat Jr. didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment on the settlement Monday.
Christie, directly and through spokesmen, has repeatedly denied having any discussions with anyone in the attorney general’s office about the case, and he wasn’t named in Barlyn’s lawsuit. The defendants included Paula Dow and Stephen Taylor, respectively New Jersey’s attorney general and director of public safety at the time.
Under terms of the settlement, the defendants deny any wrongdoing or liability.
The state retained the services of law firm Gibbons P.C., primarily to fight Barlyn’s request to unseal grand jury testimony and materials from the Trout indictment. Gibbons had billed the state more than $3 million as of April 2016, according to information obtained in an open public records request. A judge eventually ruled Barlyn and his attorneys could view the materials.
Those legal fees are surpassed by what taxpayers have borne for the George Washington Bridge lane-closing case, currently the subject of a federal criminal trial in Newark. The state has been billed more than $10 million by outside firms representing Christie’s office and individual employees. Two former Christie subordinates are charged with causing traffic jams at the bridge in 2013 to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie. Christie wasn’t charged.
In his statement, Barlyn, who now works as a schoolteacher, called the events that provided the catalyst for his lawsuit “perhaps the first, but clearly not the last, instance of the Christie administration’s deliberate misuse of its political and legal authority.”
A spokesman for Christie deferred comment Monday to the attorney general’s office.