The report is in, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been cleared by the law firm his office hired to investigate him.
The Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher report, commissioned by the governor’s office for $650 an hour, has cleared the governor and his current staffers of wrongdoing in the alleged misconduct of tying up traffic at the foot of the George Washington Bridge and denying the city of Hoboken badly needed Sandy relief aid over the progress of a politically-connected development project.
“Our findings today are a vindication of Gov. Christie and what he said all along,” lead attorney Randy Mastro said in a media briefing this morning. Here are a few items of interest:
1. David Samson’s absence
David Samson, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and Christie campaign adviser, did not cooperate with the internal investigation. “Wolff & Samson declined our request for interviews and documents,” page 140 of the report states.
But in today’s press conference, Mastro did not seem troubled by Samson’s absence from the report. “Chairman Samson had denied any prior knowledge of the lane closure incident in prior statements he had made, so we had the benefit of that, but we did not have the opportunity to interview him.”
Asked by WNBC’s Brian Thompson whether he would recommend to Christie that Samson resign, Mastro said the report “was not about David Samson or his conduct. He denied having any prior knowledge and connection with the lane closures. And he was not involved in the Hoboken issue at all.”
David Samson’s law firm, Wolff & Samson, represented the Rockefeller Group who were seeking city approval for a redevelopment project in North Hoboken. Former Christie cabinet secretary and Wolff & Samson lawyer, Lori Grifa, lobbied Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s administration on behalf of the project, and attempted to bring Samson into some of the conversations, e-mails show.
Mastro also said that the alleged conflicts of interest that have since risen about Samson’s private and public interests “are not the issues of our investigation.”
2. Depiction of Bridget Kelly
In an interesting section on page 114, the report suggests that the “personal life” of former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, author of the “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” e-mail, “may have had some bearing on her subjective motivations and state of mind.”
The report states that Kelly and Christie aide Bill Stepien became “personally involved” sometime after Stepien left the governor’s office in Paril 2013 to manage the reelection campaign. Although they had not talked with Stepien or Kelly, Mastro said they knew of their relationship through multiple witness interviews.
The report notes that Kelly’s “first known communication to Wildstein about the lane realignment in mid-August 2013 … occurred around the time that her personal relationship with Stepien had cooled, apparently at Stepien’s behest and Stepien and Kelly had largely stopped speaking.”
The report also suggests the breakup may have affected how they communicated about the lane closures. In today’s press conference, Mastro spoke of reviewing correspondence between Christie aides and appointees during the relevant period, and the lack of exchanges between Kelly and Stepien. “But guess what?” Mastro said in today’s press conference. “What we found was that whatever personal relationship – brief – Stepien and Kelly had, had ended by the first week of August 2013. And they largely stopped speaking.”
In another section, Kelly is depicted as seated alone in her office and looking “as if she had been crying.” Kelly then explained to another aide that she could not find any emails about the lane closures because “her practice was to delete her emails to prevent her children from reading any communications she had with her ex-husband.”
3. Fifth Amendment inferences and cooperation
On page 115, the report also says that Kelly’s recent invocation of her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination “leads to a reasonable inference that her motives and actions here were, in whole or in part, improper.” The report makes the same inference for Wildstein on page 110 and adds that his silence “corroborates the substantial evidence.”
The report is slightly kinder to Stepien, who it says also allows “an adverse inference to be drawn against him” for invoking his Fifth Amendment rights. It finds his conduct “concerning,” but “unlike Wildstein or Kelly, he does not appear to have been involved in the decision to implement” the lane closures, or apparent awareness “of any ulterior motives underlying Wildstein’s traffic study idea.”
The report’s executive summary lumps in Stepien with Kelly and Wildstein for asserting their Fifth Amendment rights “from which adverse inferences can appropriately be drawn,” adding, “No one else has done so. Indeed, we have had the cooperation of every current member of the Governor’s Office, including the Governor himself, former members of that Office, and other independent witnesses as well.”
This explanation does not account for David Samson.
4. Incoming chief of staff’s involvement
A recurring theme in explaining the Fort Lee lane closures was that the governor’s office had been misled by Wildstein and Baroni and “their consistent refrain” of a legitimate traffic study. One of the people that the report alleges was misled is Regina Egea, director of the Governor’s Authorities Unit who is slated to become Christie’s next chief of staff.
Hours after Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye restored Fort Lee’s access lanes and sent an email about the action’s potential illegality, Baroni forwarded the email to Egea. The report sheds light on what Egea did next: forwarded the email to her office’s then-senior counsel, Nicole Crifo. Later that day, Egea spoke with Baroni, who according to the report explained “that the Port Authority was simply doing a traffic study to investigate potential inefficiencies in the current lane alignment” and “that nothing inappropriate had occurred.”
The report does not state whether Egea, who was “reassured” by her conversation with Baroni, ever brought the email to Governor Christie’s attention.
Egea was later involved in preparing Baroni for his November 25, 2013 testimony before the state legislative committee investigating the lane closures. She suggested he “focus on the traffic study results” and “acknowledge error” in the failure to communicate the decision. Yet during his testimony, Egea told the investigators, Baroni “diverged” from his earlier draft “did not follow [her] advice.” Baroni said the Port Authority Police Department had suggested the study to Wildstein and questioned why Fort Lee deserved its own lanes.
This sentiment was echoed by Christie at his press conference the next week, saying he would like the traffic alignment reviewed and,“The fact that one town has three lanes dedicated to it, that kind of gets me sauced.”
5. Exonerating of Christie’s culture of politics
What has perhaps raised the most eyebrows about this report is its defense of Christie’s political culture. The report says they “examined Governor Christie’s track record in office to see if there was any other evidence of political retaliation as a modus operandi of his Administration.”
“What we found was to the contrary,” they write on page 135, citing portions of Christie’s speeches.
“From the outset, Governor Christie emphasized that “partisanship and acrimony ha[ve] not served the people well” and that he would be pursuing bipartisan outreach and alliances across party lines. While bipartisanship alone does not eliminate the possibility of a retaliatory culture, it indicates how the Governor, a Republican, committed himself publicly, and indeed had to build working relationships with 136 Democratic elected officials to govern in a state dominated by Democrats—even when at a cost within his own party. How successful he has been in that regard is a matter for others to debate. But that he pledged to pursue bipartisanship is clear from the public record, and it would be antithetical to that approach to engage in systematic retaliation.”
But observers of Christie’s administration have found just the opposite. The governor demonstrated just a few months ago that bipartisanship and retaliation can be perfectly compatible, when he tried to oust state Senator Tom Kean Jr. as Republican minority leader for working to defeat some of Christie’s Democratic allies last November.
“We will be judged, at the end of the day, by whether we got this right,” Mastro said at today’s press conference. “We intended to get it right. We believe we’ve gotten it right. We’ve admitted where we don’t have answers yet.”