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'Bridgegate' report comes up empty handed on Christie involvement

State Democrats found “no conclusive evidence” that Gov. Christie knew — or didn’t know — that his administration created gridlock as political retribution.
Chris Christie
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks in the gymnasium of Camden high school on Dec. 2, 2014, in Camden, N.J.,

New Jersey Democrats have found “no conclusive evidence” that Gov. Chris Christie knew -- or didn’t know -- that his administration created gridlock on the George Washington Bridge as political retribution, an unofficial interim report obtained by msnbc said.

However, at least half a dozen potential federal indictments may be handed down to former Christie staffers and former Port Authority officials in connection with last year's traffic scandal, multiple sources familiar with the investigation told NBC New York. The indictments could come as early as January, the sources said, and could include charges related to an apparent conspiracy to cover up the plot. 

“At present, there is no conclusive evidence as to whether Governor Chris Christie was or was not aware of the lane closures either in advance of their implementation or contemporaneously as they were occurring,” the draft report says of the September 2013 closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge. "Nor is there conclusive evidence as to whether Governor Christie did or did not have involvement in implementing or directing the lane closures." The New Jersey legislature on Monday plans to decide on whether to officially accept the report and make it public.

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Some claimed the move was political retribution aimed at Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, New Jersey, because he did not endorse Christie for reelection. Top Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly, along with others close to the governor, were linked to the closure. Kelly later resigned.

The 136-page report lacks the devastating conclusions Christie’s critics hoped would sink the governor’s presidential ambitions, but notes that they were hamstrung by noncompliant witnesses and there are still many “unanswered” and “critical” questions. It noted that former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official David Wildstein "has claimed that he informed the Governor of the lane closures at a 9/11 Memorial observance that the two attended." Photos from that event show Christie and Wildstein in conversation. The Port Authority official later resigned. 

"While the Committee currently has no means to independently evaluate Wildstein’s reported statement, the statement, as well as the current lack of information from Wildstein, Kelly, Stepien, and others, leaves open the question of when the Governor first learned of the closures and what he was told," the report added. 

While the report did not link Christie directly to the scandal, it did condemn the culture of Christie's office for allowing it to happen. "Even, however, if Kelly and Wildstein acted alone, they did so with perceived impunity and in an environment, both in [the governor's office] and the Port Authority, in which they felt empowered to act as they did, with little regard for public safety risks or the steadily mounting public frustration," the report noted.

In addition, Christie isn’t out of the woods yet as far as a federal investigation. United States Attorney Paul Fishman is still looking into Christie and his administration for a host of possible issues, including Bridgegate. While the state panel has subpoena power, it's really the U.S. attorney's office report that will have the real teeth and final implications for Christie. 

Christie, who has repeatedly denied any prior knowledge of the lane closure scheme, has said he has not been issued a subpoena by federal prosecutors but is willing to fully cooperate. When asked earlier this year if he would testify if called by the state legislative panel, Christie refused to say. And Democrats on that panel have criticized the governor for refusing to provide some documents by invoking executive privilege.

The report — commissioned by the Democratic-controlled New Jersey legislature — is the result of months of investigation by a special committee, using sworn testimony, private interviews and tens of thousands of documents to parse together just what happened in September when lane closures created hours of gridlock on the first day of school.

The investigators concluded that the lane closures were “directly implemented” by Kelly — the aide who famously emailed, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”  –  and Wildstein.

Christie’s team celebrated the results of the report.

“The committee has finally acknowledged what we reported nine months ago — namely, that there is not a shred of evidence Governor Christie knew anything about the GWB lane realignment beforehand or that any current member of his staff was involved in that decision,” the governor’s attorney Randy Mastro told NBC News in a statement. He argues that the legislature investigation “simply corroborated our comprehensive investigation,” referring to the governor’s own internal investigation, which predictably cleared him of all wrongdoing.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Assembly Deputy Speaker John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), co-chairs of the committee, released a joint statement saying, “Those who criticize this work with partisanship will not stand the test of history."

“What is clear, though, is the governor’s office showed a curious lack of curiosity to mounting indications that serious harms had been inflicted on thousands of New Jersey motorists for political rather than legitimate policy reasons," they wrote.

“We also now know that governor’s office staff on occasion blurred the lines between their official state functions and campaign objectives. This erodes public trust and confidence. We are reserving further comment on the content of the report for the full joint committee meeting Monday. All committee members will also have an opportunity then to publicly comment on the report. Our work is not finished,” they said at the conclusion of their statement.

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Christie has seemingly turned the page on so-called “Bridgegate”— at least for now. His popularity and reputation may have taken a hit in the aftermath of the scandal, but, in his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, the governor emerged victorious in the midterm elections. He helped propel seven new GOP governors into office, and overall the party will increase its number of governors from 29 to 31. Christie has since seen his popularity numbers stabilize.

But among the nascent, potential 2016 GOP field, Christie is very much in the middle of the pack. According to the latest RealClearPolitics average of polling data surrounding the 2016 GOP nomination, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush holds a slight lead with 14.3% support, closely followed by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin with 11.2%. Christie and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky aren’t far behind with both garnering 10.8% support.

Christie is currently in Canada and is expected to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Friday. The two-day trip  –  in which he has been trumpeting the controversial Keystone XL pipeline — is creating buzz that the governor is trying to beef up his foreign policy resume. Christie has only taken two trips outside the country as governor. One was to Israel in 2012 and the other was to Mexico this past September.