New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his supporters recently have had some good news to trumpet. After nearly nine months of federal investigations into the September 2013 George Washington Bridge lane closures, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman has “thus far uncovered no evidence indicating that [Christie] either knew in advance or directed the closure of traffic lanes on the span,” according to last week's report from NBC New York.
The news came on Sept. 18, just hours after Christie spent several minutes laying into reporters who have been covering the "Bridgegate" scandal and related investigations that have targeted the governor's office and his appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the massive bi-state agency that manages the bridge. Previous reports uncovered involvement in the lane closures by key Christie administration officials, who allegedly sought political retribution. The governor subsequently fired his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Ann Kelly, for her role in the scandal.
Reacting in a radio call-in program to the news that he hadn't been directly linked to the closures, Christie said it was “no shock” to him. He then spent part of last weekend reconnecting with Republican donors as he assembles supporters and staff for a widely-expected presidential run. He also visited the posh home of billionaire industrialist and top GOP bankroller David Koch on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
But some caution is warranted.
Fishman's office insists the federal investigation has not been completed, let alone cleared anyone of potential criminal wrongdoing. “The investigation is continuing,” Rebekah Carmichael, a spokesperson for Fishman, told reporters. That lack of detail is characteristic of Fishman’s office, which Christie himself held from 2002 to 2008. During that time, the office was far more responsive to reporters’ inquiries.
Despite the silence from Fishman and his lieutenants about the ongoing investigation, it’s nonetheless possible to gauge where things probably stand and what is at stake.
According to sources familiar with the federal investigation but not authorized to speak publicly about it, the central figures in the governor’s circle who played a role in the lane closures have not yet testified before the grand jury. They also have not received target letters from federal prosecutors to notify them that they are likely to be indicted. Included in this group are former Port Authority Chairman David Samson, his deputy Bill Baroni, and Port Authority official David Wildstein, along with Kelly and former Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien.
Not receiving a target letter is no sign of being in the clear. Such notifications can be issued late in an investigation. In addition, not being called to testify might be a sign that an indictment could lie ahead, since prosecutors would likely hesitate to take testimony from someone who they plan to turn into a bigger target. At this point, it is widely believed that Fishman is focused on Samson, a powerful Christie supporter and a former state attorney general. Samson asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination earlier in the year in response to a subpoena from the New Jersey legislature.
Any of those high-profile appearances seem unlikely to happen soon. Secondary figures in this story, such as Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich and Philip Kwoan, a Port Authority attorney who helped prepare Baroni’s public statements which dismissed the lane closures as a traffic study gone wrong, were scheduled to appear before the grand jury only in June and July. Port Authority police officers with insight into the lane closures were in touch with prosecutors in late August and early September, according to a member of the state legislative committee investigating the matter. The pace of the investigation thus seems unlikely to bring indictments before this fall, and Fishman has gone to great lengths to keep the comings and goings of other witnesses as low key as possible.
But Bridgegate is only one small slice of what is currently occupying federal and state prosecutors in New Jersey and New York. Fishman is also examining allegations the Christie administration tied Hurricane Sandy relief aid to a local development project in Hoboken. The city's mayor, Dawn Zimmer, told MSNBC's Steve Kornacki that Hoboken had been denied Sandy aid as political retribution by Christie's administration -- allegations the governor's office has continually denied.
The U.S. Attorney's Office is also looking into the potentially improper use of bondholders' funds by the Port Authority on projects in New Jersey and New York unrelated to the agency’s legal mandate. The Securities and Exchange Commission and Manhattan District Attorney are also jointly investigating the same issue. A long paragraph in the Port Authority’s latest bond offering (PDF) details these simultaneous and sometimes overlapping investigations, all of which are united by a common theme: the extent to which Christie, his staff, and his appointees allegedly tried to influence the management and priorities of an agency that has a 1500 square mile territory and a 2014 budget in excess of $8 billion. The administration has denied any wrongdoing and insisted the projects were legitimate candidates for the agency's support.
And of course the New Jersey legislature is also continuing to investigate the lane closures. Their ability to hold public hearings has been curtailed, however, by the U.S. Attorney’s request that they not publicly take testimony from people who have also been called to appear before the federal grand jury. So instead of holding public hearings, they have been receiving documents as their attorneys conduct interviews behind closed doors.
The committee’s work so far has shown that Christie knew far more about the lane closures after they occurred than he led the public to believe late last year. On December 13, Christie publicly claimed that no member of his staff was involved in the lane closures. However, according to the testimony of Kevin O'Dowd, his chief of staff, Christie had been handed an email that showed otherwise. The committee's hearings also learned that Christie's staff may have been attempting to sweep the issue out of view by arranging for the exit of Wildstein and Baroni from the Port Authority just as as last year’s legislative session drew to a close and the legislature’s subpoena power was set to expire.
So while Christie has not yet been implicated in the lead-up to Bridgegate, the figure at the center of these investigations is Samson, one of the governor's closest confidantes. “They’re going to hit Samson with everything they can and hope he turns over something on Christie,” said one attorney who has had a first-hand view of prosecutors' work but is not allowed to discuss it publicly.
Ultimately, the fact that investigators have not found and may never find an email or text message linking Christie to the lane closures may not be all that significant. His fate may hinge on what others testify to if and when they appear in open court.