Bridgegate circle widens

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie addresses the Faith and Freedom Coalition's 'Road to Majority' Policy Conference, June 20, 2014 in Washington, DC.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie addresses the Faith and Freedom Coalition's 'Road to Majority' Policy Conference, June 20, 2014 in Washington, DC.

In some ways the term "Bridgegate" is quickly becoming insufficient.

Word came early this week, via a report in The New York Times, that prosecutors in the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. are partnering with investigators from the Securities and Exchange Commission to learn whether the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey misled bondholders when it agreed to finance a $1.8 billion transportation project in New Jersey.

The project in question, called the Pulaski Skyway, was in bond disclosures as a “Lincoln Tunnel Access Infrastructure” improvement even though the roadway does not directly take drivers to the Lincoln Tunnel. According to a leaked internal legal memo, the bi-state agency’s lawyers questioned whether spending funds on the Skyway was legally justifiable because of the agency’s limited jurisdiction.

Those attorneys and top appointees at the Port Authority relented, however, once Gov. Chris Christie and his staff began pressuring the agency to steer the money to New Jersey and made press statements that made the project sound like a done deal.

"It is widely expected that Samson is the target of Fishman’s investigation and that the prosecutor is building his case in the hopes of pressuring Samson, 74, to turn on his onetime protégé Gov. Christie."'

Under a 1920s New York securities law called the Martin Act, the New York prosecutors could bring misdemeanor charges against culpable officials without having to prove that they intended to commit a fraud. At this time, it is unclear who may be the target of this investigation. It is worth noting, however, that the federal laws governing securities fraud – and which therefore steer the Securities and Exchange Commission – define fraud as a felony-level crime and require proof of intent. So do the felony provisions of the Martin Act, which mean that any SEC participation in the Manhattan D.A.’s investigation is likely to focus on that more serious offense, according to someone familiar with the matter.

This investigation is separate from the ongoing grand jury inquiries (yes, you read that right -- there are two grand juries at work) in the federal courthouse in Newark, N.J.

Paul Fishman, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, has empaneled a special grand jury to look only at the original ‘Bridgegate,’ the week-long lane closures at the George Washington Bridge that clogged the streets of Fort Lee and surrounding communities with gridlocked traffic for days. Fishman is also looking into allegations, first made on MSNBC’s “Up With Steve Kornacki,” that Christie administration officials may have pressured Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken, to support a local redevelopment project in exchange for federal Hurricane Sandy aid. 

These allegations have been vehemently denied by the Christie administration.

Documents show, however, that the backers of that redevelopment project were clients of the law firm of then-Port Authority chairman David Samson, whose agency funded a planning study which exclusively benefited those same clients. It is widely expected – based on both the Times story and on my own reporting – that Samson is the target of Fishman’s investigation and that the prosecutor is building his case in the hopes of pressuring Samson, 74, to turn on his onetime protégé Gov. Christie.

These prosecutorial developments have been taking place largely out of sight, in offices that have reputations for being fairly leak-proof.

The same is not true, however, for the New Jersey legislature’s special committee investigating the lane closures. Word came late Thursday, through conversations with two members of the committee, that 12 additional witnesses may soon be subpoenaed before the committee resumes holding hearings in July. Among the new names is Fort Lee, N.J. Mayor Mark Sokolich, whose town hosts the George Washington Bridge. For months, Republican members of the committee, particularly Bergen County Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, have publicly asked why Sokolich had not been asked to testify at the outset of the committee’s work.

That question is a good one. In early press reports following the September 2013 lane closures, it was Sokolich and his colleagues on Fort Lee’s local city council who first floated the theory that he might have been personally targeted for punishment after not endorsing Gov. Christie’s re-election bid. Doubt was cast on that theory once documents showed Sokolich’s endorsement had not been expected, and that the mayor had been clear with Christie staffers early in 2013 that he had no plans to endorse the governor.

All of this still means the motives behind the lane closures remain a mystery.

Yet according to documents released earlier this week by the legislative committee – ones that were used as exhibits during the hearing with Gov. Christie’s chief of staff Kevin O’Dowd – the circle of people with possible knowledge about the closures may have been wider than previously shown.

During the week of the closures Port Authority Chairman David Samson had multiple telephone calls with the agency’s then-deputy director Bill Baroni, who was the top political appointee from N.J. on the agency’s day-to-day staff. Specifically, Samson spoke with Baroni for eight minutes at 9:09 p.m. on the evening of Monday, September 9. Baroni had been aware of Mayor Sokolich’s complaints about the traffic in his town, and not long before calling Samson, Baroni received a text message from David Wildstein, the New Jersey appointee who actually implemented the lane closures. At 8:46 p.m. Wildstein sent Baroni a message saying: “911…call me.”

"The circle of people with possible knowledge about the closures may have been wider than previously shown."'

Baroni phoned Samson soon after. Samson had spoken with Baroni already that night, along with Regina Egea, an attorney in Christie’s office who handled Port Authority issues. Samson also called Wildstein that evening. All of these calls -- seven in all -- happened after 6 p.m. on the first day of the lane closures, while Samson appears to have been in the resort town of Red Lodge, Montana.

We do not know what the calls were about, only that they happened – that is the limitation of such evidence. Samson himself has refused to answer the legislative committee’s subpoena, citing the legal jeopardy posed by the federal investigations. It is clear, however, that as the lane closures were being implemented and maintained, top Christie appointees at the Port Authority were in regular contact. However, whether Samson knew about their activities remains unclear.

Recently some members of the committee privately expressed frustration with their inability to question officials who were also cooperating with the U.S. Attorney's investigation. But after chief of staff Kevin O'Dowd's June 9 appearance, that sentiment seems to have dissipated.

However, with the release of the 12 new witnesses’ names, the committee will likely be busy throughout the summer and into the fall. In addition to the Fort Lee mayor, the committee will also likely subpoena the following people: Mike DuHaime, a Republican political consultant who is very close to Christie and who mentored his former chief of staff Bill Stepien; Charles McKenna, the governor’s former counsel; Regina Egea, who the governor planned to name his chief of staff and who handled Port Authority issues in the counsel’s office; Deborah Gramiccioni, another former counsel’s office attorney who now holds Baroni’s job at the Port Authority; Port Authority Police union chief Paul Nunziato; Philippe Danielides, a former aide to Samson; Philip Kwon, a Port Authority attorney whose nomination to the state supreme court was rejected in 2012; Nicole Crifo, one of Egea’s colleagues who is now at the Port Authority; Christopher Porrino, a former counsel to the governor; Paul Matey, Porrino’s deputy; and Evan Ridley, a former staffer in the governor’s office. Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye is also expected to testify at some point; his first appearance, scheduled for June, was postponed in cooperation with a written request from the U.S. Attorney.

Reached by phone on Friday morning, Mayor Sokolich had no comment on the ongoing investigations and whether he would testify if subpoenaed by the committee.

The committee’s next hearing is planned for July 8. In the meantime, there are signals from numerous sources that the Manhattan prosecutors could make their move sometime soon.