New Jersey’s Supreme Court ordered the release Wednesday of winning bidders’ names from a county prosecutor’s office’s disputed sports memorabilia auction.
The Bergen County prosecutor’s office conducted the auction in 2014 using items seized in a criminal action. Only about one-quarter of the items seized turned out to be genuine.
The ruling was a victory for William Brennan, who had sought the information through an open records request. Brennan, a former firefighter, ran an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign last year and made headlines when he filed a suit against then-Republican Gov. Chris Christie over the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal. That suit ultimately was thrown out.
John Molinelli, the Bergen County prosecutor at the time, said in 2014 that the counterfeit items would be destroyed to avoid winding up in the hands of unsuspecting collectors. Brennan had contended the prosecutor’s office knowingly allowed counterfeit memorabilia to be sold.
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In an email Wednesday, Molinelli, who is now in private practice, noted that a lower court judge concluded in 2015 that his office’s actions were in good faith and that he “took extraordinary steps” by writing to each bidder and offering the option of a full refund if any of them felt uncomfortable about their purchase.
Brennan, who didn’t bid on the items, said Wednesday he was pleased with the ruling but added, “It just disturbed me that this had to go to the Supreme Court. It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
A trial court had ordered the names released, writing that the potential for harm was “relatively minuscule.” But an appeals court ruled Brennan wasn’t entitled to the names, reasoning that identifying private individuals as collectors could make them targets for theft.
The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court Wednesday and held that the request should have been granted.
“Viewed objectively, it was unreasonable for a buyer to expect that the information requested would remain private,” a unanimous court wrote. “If anything, the sale of government property at a public auction is a quintessential public event that calls for transparency.”