The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has filed a suit against the state's largest city, claiming it violated public records laws by not releasing correspondence between officials about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million donation to Newark's public schools.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of Secondary Parent Council. The 30-year-old advocacy group, made up of parents and grandparents of Newark students, had filed an open records request April 5 to review correspondence between Zuckerberg, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Gov. Chris Christie and Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf. But after two extensions, that request was rejected by city officials in July — prompting the lawsuit.
Katie Wang, a spokeswoman with the ACLU in New Jersey, said the suit isn't an idle threat to get the city to release the documents, "We have sued because we believe the city has not offered a lawful response to (Secondary Parent Council's) open records request. We are confident that there are records that are being withheld by the city of Newark."
City officials, however, told Patch there are no records. "There's nothing here that's a secret," said Anne Torres, a city spokeswoman. She said the city has disclosed where the cash is going, primarily through local media outlets.
Booker, Christie and Zuckerberg announced the donation last September on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
The 12-page complaint alleges Newark officials failed to make a "timely response" to the records request — even after the two extensions. The first was April 26 and the second was June 15. Fifteen days after the second extension, according to the lawsuit, the group still had no response and requested any documents found up to that point. State law requires a response to Open Public Records Act requests within seven business days.
The group then filed a final request July 12. The city responded July 19, denying the request because it was "overbroad and fail(ed) to identify with reasonable clarity the specific governmental records sought."
A letter from Newark's corporation counsel to Secondary Parent Council also claims any relevant communication between Booker and Zuckerberg or any other person "were not made in the course of the Mayor's official duties and are therefore exempt from disclosure under OPRA." The letter also states if Booker was "exercising his official duties as Mayor," the requested records are still exempt because of executive privilege.
But the ACLU complaint states the scope of the request "fully comports" with OPRA's requirements and Booker's communiques are not exempt from disclosure under executive privilege. The civil liberties union also states in the complaint that the public has a right to know how the $100 million will be allocated because it significantly impacts city school children.
Laura Baker, who filed the records request as a representative of Secondary Parent Council, said in a statement that Newark residents "have a need and right to know how the money pledged to Newark's public schools will ultimately serve Newark's public school students." She did not return calls to her home seeking comment.
Since the grant's announcement, Booker has helped raise cash for Foundation for Newark's Future, a separate, nonprofit organization whose goal is to match the $100 million. So far, the mayor has netted nearly $53 million.