There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical, but Monday’s New York Times contains an article—“Inquiry Is Said to Clear Christie, But That’s His Lawyers Verdict"—that ought to seen as the governor’s team’s own (leaked) response to the various investigations of Christie’s role in Bridgegate and the Superstorm Sandy aid scandal. Not surprisingly, on both counts Christie’s lawyers say Christie is not guilty.
By leaking the results of their massive internal look-see to the Times—but not to the New Jersey media, including the Newark Star-Ledger and the Bergen Record—it’s obvious that Christie’s team is seeking to capture the high ground in the face of ongoing inquiries by both the US Attorney’s office in New Jersey and a joint committee of the New Jersey legislature. In any case, it’s a blockbuster leak—and, it appears, the full report is soon to be released to the public. (Christie Watch will keep you posted during the day on the report’s release and reactions to it.)
As regular readers of Christie Watch know, for weeks the noose has been tightening around the governor, as both inquiries have expanded to include the whole tangle of charges around the GWB-Sandy mess, from the original charges that Christie’s administration shut down traffic lanes last September to later charges by the mayor of Hoboken that Christie’s lieutenant governor threatened to withhold Sandy recovery aid unless the mayor agreed to back a $1 billion development project Christie favored, and then expanded once again to encompass a web of conflict-of-interest scandals surrounding the Port Authority, its chairman, David Samson, and his law firm, Wolff & Samson.
The Times piece, sourced directly to attorneys at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the firm hired by Christie to conduct the internal inquiry, seems to have avoided the issue of Wolff & Samson’s conflicts of interest and Samson’s own self-dealing. But, the lawyers told the Times, they’ve cleared Christie of wrongdoing and foreknowledge in both the GWB lane-closing events and the Hoboken story.
The lawyers say that they spent $1 million (of New Jersey taxpayers money, since it was funded by the Christie administration), interviewed more than seventy people, and “gained access to government and private email accounts of key current and former administration officials and obtained records of their incoming and outgoing phone calls and text messages.” It involved at least a dozen lawyers from Gibson Dunn.
Says the Times, based on interviews with Randy Mastro, the chief lawyer from the firm:
Now, after 70 interviews and at least $1 million in legal fees to be paid by state taxpayers, that review is set to be released, and according to people with firsthand knowledge of the inquiry, it has uncovered no evidence that the governor was involved in the plotting or directing of the lane closings.
To be charitable to Governor Christie, when it come to the specifics of the GWB and Hoboken charges it’s not impossible that Christie was walled off from particular knowledge, even if his staffers did the things they’re alleged to have done. (That’s certainly Christie’s own version of the story, as he said at length during a nearly two-hour, cathartic news conference on January 9.)
In any case, though Christie has become the butt of jokes nationwide over the scandals, The Nation’s own Victor Navasky —now the Columbia Journalism Review’s chairman and author of The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power—is cited in a Bergen Record story expressing limited sympathy for the way the governor has been pilloried by satirists:
Even though I’m in disagreement with [Christie’s] politics, I feel a little sorry for him because they’re going after him in this way. … If you don’t like an editorial that’s written about you, or press coverage about you, you can write a letter to the editor. But there’s no such thing as a caricature to the editor.
That’s all well and good, but the background of the attorneys for Gibson Dunn don’t inspire confidence in the thoroughness and impartiality of their “investigation.” Randy Mastro, the $650-an-hour heavyweight heading up the firm’s team, hired by Christie in January, “has ties not only to one of the governor’s closest political allies, Rudy Giuliani, but also the Port Authority itself,” the Record reported back then. Specifically, regarding the PA, Mastro and Gibson Dunn were involved in defending the agency in the swirl of charges around the 2011 toll hikes that have recently become an even more controversial part of the Christie-Samson tangle. (In February, Mastro and his firm ended their representation of the PA in the suit, filed against the PA by the American Automobile Association.) As Christie Watch reported on March 4, Christie and several of his former aides and political allies inside the PA led a quiet conspiracy to raise the tolls on the bridges and tunnels between New Jersey and New York and then use some of the additional funds to pay for projects tied to Wolff & Samson.
We now know that the toll hike was orchestrated by the same people who orchestrated the lane closures from the Port Authority side. And Gibson Dunn argued against releasing the communications between the PA and the governors offices of New York and New Jersey. As the Record reported:
The motorist advocacy groups, AAA New York and AAA North Jersey, filed a lawsuit against the Port Authority after the agency instituted steep toll hikes in 2011. Lawyers for AAA are pushing for the release of communications between Port Authority officials and the New York and New Jersey governors’ offices to determine the reason for the toll hikes.
Court records show that Mastro and his colleagues have been trying to prevent the release of information about 339 Port Authority records, including communications between agency officials and the offices of both governors. Mastro’s firm has argued that these communications are privileged and has offered little description of their contents.
Mastro’s ties to Giuliani complete a web of interlinks between Christie and the former New York mayor, both of whom were top prosecutors in New Jersey and New York City, respectively.
Another Gibson Dunn lawyer involved in the pro-Christie inquiry is Deborah Wong Yang, a former US attorney in Los Angeles. She has ties to Christie going back to Christie’s own days as the US attorney in New Jersey (2002-2008), because Christie handed Yang a lucrative contract as a federally appointed monitor in an agreement with a medical-device maker in 2007—part of the same set of monitoring contracts handed out to politically connected lawyers and friends of Christie’s, including former US Attorney General John Ashcroft, who pocketed a contract worth more than $50 million. According to the Record, Yang has called Christie a “very dear friend."
Yang was also at the center of a weird series of events back in the mid-2000s, when she was about to be ousted as US attorney in California as she was gearing up an investigation into then-Congressman Jerry Lewis, a Republican. (This was during the controversy surrounding the 'enemies list' of US attorneys who were fired by the George W. Bush administration.) Oddly, Yang jumped ship when she quit—and then joined the firm that was defending Representative Lewis—you guessed it: Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher!—and received a $1.5 million “signing bonus” in the process.
Reactions will be pouring in to the latest Christie-led leak, and Christie Watch will on top of it all.