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AP uncovers NJ utility lobbying for a bailout, and blackout of financial records

FILE - In this Nov. 13, 2007, file photo, a tractor and trailer sit near an outbuilding on a small farm, not far from a cooling tower at the Salem Nuclear Generating Station operated by Public Service Enterprise Group Inc. in Lower Alloways Creek Township, N.J. Lobbyists for New Jersey's largest utility worked with former Gov. Chris Christie's administration to craft a $300 million bail out for nuclear power, while adding language to shield the company's financial information from the public, according to records obtained by The Associated Press. The bill is set for a vote Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018, in a state Senate committee. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

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In the weeks before New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie left office, a measure began quickly advancing through the Legislature that would give the state’s largest utility company a $300 million bailout for its nuclear power plants.

That got the curiosity of statehouse reporter Michael Catalini, who started digging.

A records request turned up more than a dozen emails between PSEG lobbyists and the Christie administration, showing that the company had lobbied for the bailout and wrote in a clause itself to prevent the public release of financial information proving it needed the money.

One of the emails from a lobbyist uncovered by Catalini called for adding “more stringent” financial confidentiality language to shield the company’s books from the public. The suggested language from the lobbyist was included in the bill introduced in the Legislature and became the basis of the harshest criticisms against the bill from its opponents who argued that the administration and lobbyists worked together to keep data from the public.

The bill failed to get to Christie’s desk during December’s lame-duck session, but re-emerged after Democrat Phil Murphy took office.

Lawmakers rewrote the bill the day after Catalini’s story appeared, requiring the utility to open its financial records.

Catalini’s story was published a day before a committee hearing on the bill and lawmakers rewrote the measure after the story to clarify that PSEG would be required to submit “any financial information” to the state utility regulator.

The story was played on the front page of the state’s largest newspaper,the Newark Star-Ledger,and was cited by fellow New Jersey journalists in their own aggregated versions of the story.

The piece was used by more than 100 customers,according to NewsWhip,showing that the accountability angle had an audience outside of just New Jersey.

For holding the utility and state lawmakers responsible, Catalini will receive this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

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