Lawyers spar over release of grand jury transcripts in ex-prosecutor's lawsuit over firing

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TRENTON, New Jersey — A lengthy battle over 5-year-old grand jury transcripts returned to court Friday in the case of a former assistant county prosecutor who claims he was fired because of political influence exerted by members of Gov. Chris Christie's administration.

Ben Barlyn, a former assistant Hunterdon County prosecutor, is seeking access to the transcripts from a 2010 case against three county law enforcement members that eventually was dismissed. He claims in a 2012 lawsuit that political pressure led to dismissal of the 43-count indictment after the state took it over from the county and that he was fired when he objected.

A state appeals court ruled last year that Barlyn hadn't demonstrated a compelling need for the grand jury materials.

But Barlyn's attorney argued in state Superior Court Friday that transcripts from the case against former Hunterdon County Sheriff Deborah Trout, Undersheriff Michael Russo and investigator John Falat Jr. are necessary for Barlyn to prove the indictment was valid and not "deficient," as the state attorney general's office claimed when it decided not to pursue the case.

Grand jury proceedings are closed and witness testimony is kept secret, with rare exceptions.

"We are entitled to prove the legal reason for dismissing the indictment was not supported by the evidence," Robert Lytle told Superior Court Judge Douglas Hurd.

The lawsuit alleges Dr. Robert Hariri was a material witness in the investigation of Trout, Russo and Falat, and with his wife donated more than $10,000 to Christie's 2009 gubernatorial campaign. The lawsuit notes Hariri later was part of the Republican governor's transition team and alleges he was one of the people investigators suspected Russo provided a fake law enforcement ID card.

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

Christie has denied any involvement in the indictment's dismissal.

Peter Torcicollo, a lawyer representing the attorney general's office, argued Friday that Barlyn could seek information by deposing the three defendants, for starters, but that he hasn't chosen to do that.

Lytle said that the state had "cordoned off an incredible amount of information," making depositions fruitless. He also claimed that because the defendants were given access to the grand jury materials, the transcripts should no longer be withheld.

Torcicollo called Lytle's arguments "outrageous" and "just not true" and added that the state had given 56,000 pages of documents to Barlyn, including investigative files from the case.

Hurd didn't rule Friday but appeared to be leaning toward releasing the materials in some form, either under a protective order barring them from the public or reviewing them himself in chambers.

Barlyn is a former state deputy attorney general who worked for the Hunterdon prosecutor's office from 2007 and handled appeals in the manslaughter trial of former NBA star Jayson Williams. His lawsuit seeks damages for lost wages and earnings.

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