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After expensive fight, ex-prosecutor suing over probe that touched on Christie donor gets win

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NEWARK, New Jersey — After an expensive legal fight, a former prosecutor who sued Gov. Chris Christie's administration over his 2010 firing has been granted access by a judge to secret grand jury transcripts he says will help show he was terminated because he questioned the dropping of an indictment that involved a Christie donor who served on the governor's transition team.

The ruling by state Superior Court Judge Douglas Hurd, given to attorneys Friday, is the latest chapter in a lengthy dispute that has cost taxpayers nearly $2 million in legal fees incurred as the state has sought to block the transcripts' release, according to figures obtained by The Associated Press.

Former assistant Hunterdon County prosecutor Bennett Barlyn contends in a lawsuit filed in 2012 that he was fired shortly after the state took over, and subsequently dismissed, a 43-count indictment against then-county Sheriff Deborah Trout and two subordinates that charged them with offenses including official misconduct and falsification of employment records.

The state claimed it dismissed the indictment — which had been handed up by the grand jury after hearing evidence presented by the Hunterdon County prosecutor's office — because of legal and factual deficiencies. Barlyn said that, rather than fix the problems and resubmit it to the grand jury, the attorney general's office dropped the indictment "for corrupt political purposes."

According to Barlyn's lawsuit, a material witness in the investigation was Dr. Robert Hariri, who with his wife donated more than $10,000 to Christie's 2009 gubernatorial campaign and later was part of the Republican governor's transition team. The lawsuit claims Hariri, who wasn't charged, was believed to be one of the people given a fake law enforcement ID card by one of the defendants, Undersheriff Michael Russo.

The lawsuit also contends all three defendants were Christie supporters and that Russo told a reporter that Christie would step in and "have this whole thing thrown out."

Christie has repeatedly denied having any involvement in the dropping of the indictment, and he is not a defendant in Barlyn's lawsuit. The suit names former state Attorney General Paula Dow, a Christie nominee, and several other state and county law enforcement officials.

A spokesman for the state attorney general's office had no comment on the ruling Wednesday and said the office hadn't decided whether it would appeal.

Gibbons, a Newark-based law firm, billed the state $1.7 million for work on the case from May 2014 when it was retained through the end of this May, according to records obtained by the AP.

"The grand jury record is the proverbial smoking gun evidence needed to prove my whistleblower claim," Barlyn said in an email. "This explains why the Christie administration has expended so much tax payer money to keep it from me."

Barlyn, a former state deputy attorney general who handled appeals for the Hunterdon County prosecutor's office in the manslaughter trial of former NBA star Jayson Williams, has contended in numerous court filings that the grand jury materials in the Trout case will show the indictment was backed up by evidence and shouldn't have been dropped.

Attorneys representing the state argued that the transcripts' relevance was questionable and that releasing them would set a dangerous precedent and have a chilling effect on future witnesses. Grand jury proceedings are closed and witness testimony is kept secret, with rare exceptions.

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