When it comes to the bridge scandal that’s dogging New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the Republican is sparing no expenses for legal help.
According to the latest invoices released this week, lawyers hired by the governor billed the state $2.16 million in February. Add that to the approximate $1.1 million spent on work in January and the total jumps to $3.26 million -- for now. That number is expected to increase for state taxpayers, as billable work starting in March has not been made public.
The governor first hired law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher back in January to conduct an internal review after documents were made public showing some of Christie’s aides and allies were involved in a scheme to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge, seemingly in an act of political retribution. Christie’s administration is under several federal and state investigations related to the scandal.
In March, the law firm issued that internal review, which cleared Christie -- a potential 2016 presidential candidate who has fiercely denied any prior knowledge of the scheme—of any wrongdoing. Democrats, however, have dismissed the findings as a “whitewash.”
Meanwhile, the state investigation into “Bridgegate” is accelerating. Kevin O’Dowd, Christie’s chief of staff, testified on Monday in front of the state legislative panel. O'Dowd insisted he had no previous knowledge in September of the plan to close down the lanes on the New Jersey side of the bridge.
O’Dowd, who is the highest ranking official in Christie’s administration to testify, said Christie had directed him to find out what Bridget Kelly, deputy chief of staff at the time, knew about the plot in early December. O’Dowd said he initially believed Kelly when she told him that she had nothing to do with the lane closures, which later turned out to be false. Kelly was fired by Christie in January after emails were made public showing her writing to a Christie appointee at the Port Authority: “Time for some problems in Fort Lee,” referring to the town on the New Jersey side of the bridge.
Despite Christie’s popularity taking a hit in the aftermath of the scandal, the governor has insisted that he does not think the lane closure scandal will make a difference to voters should he run for president in 2016.
In fact, Christie is revving up his fundraising trips on behalf of the Republican Governors Association, which he chairs. He has plans to visit the early voting states of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina this summer. The trips are sure to generate buzz that Christie is seriously considering a bid for the Oval Office. Earlier this month, Christie was in New Mexico to stump on behalf of the state's governor, Susana Martinez, before going to Tennessee to fundraise for Sen. Lamar Alexander. The RGA has been highlighting its record fundraising hauls --$23.5 million in the first quarter -- under Christie's leadership.
Christie will also keynote the annual Faith & Freedom Coalition “Road to Majority” conference in Washington D.C. this month, where thousands of evangelicals are set to gather and hear from potential 2016 candidates. And he’ll be a guest on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show on Thursday. Though he’s been Fallon's guest before, it’s Christie’s first appearance on a late-night comedy show since the lane closure scandal erupted.
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele told msnbc that Christie is revving up his fundraising stops and making appearances on late-night comedy because “his biggest problem is legal and he doesn’t need us to focus on that.” Steele warned, however: “over his shoulder he still has be concerned about what investigations are going on and the public perception overall about him," noting his popularity has dipped. Christie’s “personal appeal is a lot less than where it was," said Steele.
Christie has said he doesn’t intend to make a decision on running for commander-in-chief until a year from now. The latest RealClearPolitics average of polling data from March 18 to May 4 surrounding the 2016 GOP presidential nomination shows Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee tied in the lead with 13% each. Christie is in fourth place behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.