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Newark, NJ, told to produce Facebook pledge log

By David Porter
Associated Press / January 27, 2012
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NEWARK, N.J.—The state's largest city must produce a list of documents related to a $100 million pledge to its public schools from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, a judge ruled Friday.

The ruling stemmed from of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a group representing Newark schoolchildren that is seeking more transparency about the donation. The Associated Press and other news outlets also have made such requests.

State Superior Court Judge Rachel Davidson's ruling requires the city to produce the list, believed to enumerate about 50 pages of emails pertaining to the donation, by Feb. 10. The city could seek to block the publishing of some of the emails on the list, according to ACLU New Jersey attorney Ed Barocas.

The city, in a response letter to an AP request for the documents in 2010, said that any conversations between Democratic Mayor Cory Booker and Zuckerberg were "not made in the course of the Mayor's official duties" and therefore were exempt from open-records laws.

Were Booker found to have been acting in his capacity as mayor, the letter continued, the city didn't have the records requested. But it added that if the records were found, their release was barred under executive privilege.

The ACLU, in its lawsuit, argued that privilege can be claimed only by the governor, not by a sitting mayor. It argued that the public has a right to know how the grant funds are to be used and who is making the decisions on their allocation.

"We don't want to make it seem that there was necessarily something nefarious going on," Barocas said Friday. "All we ask is for this to be transparent. The public should be aware what, if any, agreements were made prior to or as part of the grant of the money."

City attorney Anna Pereira declined to comment Friday, citing the ongoing litigation.

In court filings, the city has said that the Facebook grant is being administered not by the city but by two not-for-profits that it doesn't fund, operate or exercise any control over. The city's schools were placed under state control in 1995 after instances of waste and mismanagement, including the spending of taxpayer money by school board members on cars and restaurant meals.

Newark's public school system is the state's largest, with 75 schools and a student population of about 40,000, according to its website. The schools have been plagued for years by low test scores, poor graduation rates and crumbling buildings.

The $100 million pledge to the schools was announced in the fall of 2010 by Booker, Zuckerberg and Republican Gov. Chris Christie as they appeared together on Oprah Winfrey's syndicated talk show.

Zuckerberg described the gift as a "challenge grant" to Booker, who has sought to raise $100 million more to match what Zuckerberg promised to contribute over five years. Zuckerberg's social networking website, based in Palo Alto, Calif., is estimated to be worth more than $50 billion.

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