Christie's Legal Team Clears Him as Critics Cry "Whitewash"
Thursday, March 27, 2014
A law firm hired by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's office to review lane closures on the George Washington Bridge "found that Gov. Christie did not know of the lane realignment beforehand and had no involvement in the decision to realign the lanes."s.
"I want to be clear," said attorney Randy Mastro, who led the probe. "This was the action of the few. This was not reflective of the actions of the whole."
But the report was quickly lambasted by critics as a "whitewash" and left many questions unanswered. Witnesses were not interviewed under oath, and neither Port Authority Chair David Samson nor the four Christie aides who have resigned were interviewed for the report.
Mastro's report lays blame for the lane closures on Christie's ally at the Port Authority, David Wildstein, His deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and his campaign director, Bill Stepien. The report backs up what Gov. Christie has said: that the three lied to him about their involvement and motivations. Furthermore, it makes public what has been long-rumored, that Kelly and Stepien were having an affair — but Mastro could not explain the affair's relevance, except to say Kelly and Stepien were no longer speaking when the "Time for traffic problems in Fort Lee" email was sent.
The report says Wildstein told staffers he told Christie about the lane closures the week they occurred, but that Christie does not remember that conversation. Mastro says it's reasonable that the governor would not remember or pay attention to a comment about traffic on the George Washington Bridge.
In a conference call, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who is leading the bridgegate investigation, said the report was a "whitewash" and a "rush to judgment."
"Lawyers hired by and paid by the Christie administration itself to investigate the governor’s office who then say the governor and most of his office did nothing wrong will not be the final word on this matter," Wisniewski and Senator Loretta Weinberg said in a joint statement. He added the report "reads more like a novel than a work of fact."
Still unclear are the details surrounding a meeting that was scheduled between Christie and Port Authority Chairman David Samson in the weeks before the lane closures are unclear. And, perhaps most critically, it's unclear why the governor didn't ask or order Samson, a mentor and close friend, to cooperate with this probe. Samson is mentioned in the previously released correspondence as someone who was leading the retaliation against the official who reopened the lanes.
The report also attacks Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who alleges she was told by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno that the city's Sandy aid would be held back if she did not approve a 40-story development. Because Zimmer and other Hoboken officials declined to be interviewed for the report, Mastro concludes her claims have no merit. The report says a formula was used to determine Sandy aid. The report cites conflicting messages from Zimmer on WNYC, but there is no mention of coverage by WNYC that Hoboken did not get its fair share of state aid.
Zimmer called the report a "whitewash," saying "Randy Mastro could have written his report the day he was hired and saved the taxpayers the million dollars in fees he billed in generating this one-sided whitewash of serious misconduct by the Christie Administration."
"The evidence shows that this lane realignment plan was ordered by Wildstein, with the knowledge, consent, and authorization of Kelly, and that these individuals tried to cover up operation after the fact," the report concludes. The report says the evidence of Bill Baroni and Bill Stepien's involvement is inconclusive. "We found no evidence that they were aware of any ulterior motive behind the decision to effectuate the lane realignment, but they engaged in conduct during or after the lane realignment that is concerning," the report says.
Here are more highlights:
- "Our investigation found that Gov. Christie did not know of the lane realignment beforehand and had no involvement in the decision to realign the lanes."
- The motives for why the lanes in Fort Lee were closed are still unknown, but Christie's deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, was upset with the mayor of Fort Lee. The day before Kelly wrote the “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" email in August 2013, she reconfirmed that Mayor Mark Sokolich had not endorsed Christie.
- Christie's campaign manager at the time, Bill Stepien, knew in advance of the lanes being closed, but he didn't know about the ulterior motive. He believed the cover story, that there was a traffic study being conducted.
- Stepien and Kelly had become "personally involved," but that relationship ended before Kelly wrote the infamous "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" email. The relationship had "cooled, apparently at Stepien's choice, and they largely stopped speaking."
- Christie's appointee at the Port Authority, David Wildstein, had pushed the idea of redirecting lanes from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge as early as 2010. Wildstein first approached Stepien about redirecting the lanes. He told Wildstein to take it up with the governor’s staff. So he went to Kelly. “It was Wildstein’s ‘idea,’ like so many other ‘crazy’ ones he’d had before that never got off the ground," the report says.
- Wildstein told Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak that he had informed Christie about the Fort Lee traffic issue at a public event the week of the lane closures. This, though, is "a reference that the Governor does not recall and, even if actually made, would not have registered with the Governor in any event because he knew nothing about this decision in advance and would not have considered another traffic issue at one of the bridges or tunnels to be memorable."
- "As the controversy grew, Wildstein and Kelly attempted to cover it up," according to the report. Others in the governor's office, thought the lanes were closed for a legitimate traffic study.
- On Dec. 13, 2013, Christie convened a meeting of his top staffers and "stood the entire time and raised his voice....He demanded to know from each of them in that room whether they had any prior knowledge or involvement in the lane realignment...'The confessionals are open,' he said. But Kelly did not come forward."
Speaking at the press conference, attorney Randy Mastro offered up several recommendations:
- Creating two new positions in governor's office to handle internal ethics.
- Restrict the use of personal email accounts while conducting official state business
- Disbanding the unit that Kelly ran (the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs) and realigning it with another office
- Creating a bi-state commission to examine ways to restructure and reform the Port Authority