How Christie's Office Used Government Employees to Win Endorsements

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TRENTON, NJ - NJ Governor Chris Christie speaks to press on March 28, the day after an internal investigation exonerates him from involvement in 'bridgegate.'

The thrust of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election strategy last year was to secure endorsements from Democratic officials -- and new Bridgegate documents show just how intent he was to make sure that happened.

The documents, culled by WNYC from thousands of pages released by his attorney last week as part of an internal review, show that the very same people who helped mayors as government workers also sought their endorsements as political operatives.  Former government staffers in both Republican and Democratic administrations in Trenton called the activity a break with tradition.

And it could violate state and federal laws, current and former federal prosecutors say. New Jersey's ethics law states "under no circumstances may you use state time or state resources in pursuit of political activities." Though the Governor's office wouldn't speak for this story, Christie's lawyer, Randy Mastro, strenuously denied wrongdoing.

The extent to which the lines between taxpayer-funded functions and political campaign activities were blurred is reflective of how badly Christie wanted to win re-election by large margins. To do that, he needed Democrats, and to get Democrats, he needed Democratic officials to endorse him. By collecting these endorsements he could prove himself as a Republican who could win in a blue state – and therefore, a perfect candidate for president in 2016.

The first record of the intense focus on endorsements came at a meeting in Christie’s office at the Statehouse in February 2013 that was ostensibly about Sandy funding. This was when Governor Christie himself asked Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer for her endorsement.

Zimmer was non-committal. So afterward, Christie’s staff in his taxpayer-funded office at the Statehouse worked in concert with his re-election campaign to do what they could do to get Zimmer on their side. They fast-tracked meetings with state officials Zimmer wanted to meet with, and government staffers were kept up-to-date on the status of Zimmer's endorsement.

But by July 2013, four months before the election, Zimmer still hadn't decided whether she was going to endorse in the election. Christie Campaign Manager Bill Stepien was getting anxious.

"We’re approaching a point in time where we have the ‘so what’s it gonna be?’" he wrote to a colleague. "Are you with us, or against us?"

Stepien, who until April 2013 worked in the governor's office as a deputy chief of staff, personifies the way in which the lines between government and politics blur. He was slated to become head of the state Republican party until Bridgegate broke and Christie severed ties with him.

"Only the most naïve among us would believe that politics is not a major element in any governor’s office," said Carl Golden, a press secretary in two Republican administrations in New Jersey "It’s always there. The key is how discreet the office is going to be." 

Team Christie was not discreet when it came to the Hoboken mayor. When Stepien learned that the Zimmer wasn’t endorsing anyone, he was furious, complaining to a colleague that they had been "kissing her ass" all these years for nothing.

Despite her non-endorsement, Zimmer endeavored to remain on good terms with the Christie administration, offering to appear with the Governor in public.

At an August event in Hoboken, in which reality TV's Cake Boss endorsed Christie, Zimmer said she could come. The event was right across from Hoboken City Hall. But Christie himself, according to the documents, "strongly agreed" with Team Christie's decision to keep her away.

In October, she made another overture to Christie officials, offering to release a statement of support for the governor that stopped short of an endorsement. In the same email, she seemed to try to prove that she was a loyal soldier: When a reporter had asked her if she lost out on Sandy aid because of her failure to endorse, she said no.

Christie won re-election by 22 points. Then the Bridgegate scandal broke, and Zimmer told WNYC she wondered if Hoboken really did lose Sandy aid over the lack of an endorsement.

"With 20/20 hindsight, in the context we're in right now, we can always look back and say, 'Okay, was it retribution?'" Zimmer said in January. "I think probably all mayors are reflecting right now and thinking about it, but I really hope that that's not the case."

Christie officials have vehemently denied that politics has anything to do with the distribution of Sandy aid.  Those claims are largely repeated in Mastro's report, though a WNYC analysis has found that Hoboken was indeed shortchanged when it came to Sandy aid.

But another mayor wondered about retribution when lanes to the George Washington Bridge from his town inexplicably closed last September. The speculation continues to be that the Bridgegate scandal evolved from a plan to retaliate against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who didn't endorse Christie.

"He was not someone who was on my radar screen in any way, politically, professionally or in any other way," Christie said of Sokolich in January. 

But internal documents indicate that his team was going after Sokolich hard. His name first showed up in an email sent in January 2013 by a government official, Pete Sheridan, to five of his employees in the Intergovernmental Affairs unit of the Governor’s Office. The email had a list of 21 Democratic "targets" whom the workers were supposed to secure endorsements from.

Sheridan told his state employees that they should be only doing this on their own time, since it was political work. But he sent those instructions during work hours, on a Thursday. And the documents show one of the employees met with the Fort Lee mayor on a Tuesday for lunch in which the topic of endorsements came up.

This was an official government meeting, a lawyer for the state Republican party explained Wednesday, but Sokolich was the one who brought up the endorsement. The documents indicate that the idea of the endorsement came up because the pair were talking about another mayor's endorsement.

"That mayor doesn’t need a translator to understand what’s going on," said Golden, the former Republican press secretary. "That the governor’s office is in the position to help, that the governor’s office is in a position to harm, depending on the outcome of these conversations."

Former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine kept a wall separating government meetings and political endorsements, former aides said, with endorsement requests happening in the early mornings at diners, for example.

Braxton Plummer was the director of Intergovernmental Affairs for Corzine, and he said reports about how the office was used by Christie shocked him.

"Everybody stayed on message to do the appropriate thing on a day-to-day basis," he said. "From nine to five, we operate as government, so there was no time to play the side."

If government workers volunteered on the campaign, the lines were clearly established, he said.

But Christie's own legal team shows that wasn't the case -- that from Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Ann Kelly on down, there were a half dozen government workers intently focused on gaining the endorsements of Democratic mayors.

One of those documents, cited by Christie attorney Randy Mastro in an effort to exonerate the Governor, shows Kelly emailing her direct report in the Governor's office checked to see if the Fort Lee mayor had decided to endorse Christie. He hadn’t. The next morning, Kelly wrote the famous email: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." And on Sept. 9, the first day of the lane closures, she checked in with the state worker who had been trying to secure Sokolich's endorsement: Had he called yet to complain?

Christie’s spokesman sent WNYC a statement from the governor’s lawyer, Randy Mastro, who reiterated that government staff volunteered to do the campaign work on their own personal time. "There is no ethical or other prohibition against such volunteer work," Mastro said.

But the former head of public corruption prosecutions at the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office said if he were still in office, these documents would be cause for investigation. "There definitely have been cases where elected officials have been prosecuted for misusing public resources for political purposes," said Dan Stein, who is now in private practice at the firm of Richards, Kibbe, & Orbe.

A lawyer for the state Republican party said that campaign workers who also work for government are told to clearly identify which hat they are wearing, and when. They are instructed to do work during off hours, but are also allowed brief "diversions" during the work day to send emails, for example.

"Just because someone is a state employee doesn’t mean they're not allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights and volunteer for a campaign," said the lawyer, Mark Sheridan.

Yet despite Team Christie’s insistence that this Intergovernmental Affairs office was acting properly, and despite the fact that Mastro largely blamed a couple of rogue actors for Bridgegate, Mastro has recommended eliminating the unit.

So far, Christie hasn’t endorsed the recommendation.

(Andrea Bernstein contributed reporting for this story.)