Matt Katz, New Jersey Public Radio
The internal Bridgegate report released by a legal team hired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's office contains some new information, but not much. The report is more instructive as a study in crisis management -- and an examination of how a possible presidential candidate reacts to a crisis.
Step 1, Stagecraft: The report was commissioned by the governor, paid for by taxpayers (to the tune of $1 million) and written by Christie allies. The report's conclusions, but not the detailed findings, were first leaked to The New York Times in a front-page story Monday. On Thursday, Christie attorney Randy Mastro held a news conference at his law offices high above midtown Manhattan and insisted to a skeptical press corps that this was an independent, exhaustive report that sought all information, good or bad, about the governor. But the presence of one of the governor's spokesmen and a member of his advance team indicated close coordination. The report was more than 300 pages long, but it was provided to the media only an hour before the news conference. And even then, thousands of pages of back-up documents — including emails from the governor himself — were not released until the news conference began.
Mastro cut off reporters' questions after about 90 minutes. He promised to do interviews later, but told WNYC that he was too busy. Meanwhile, Christie sat for a softball interview with Diane Sawyer to lead "ABC World News" at 6:30 p.m. Further clips from the interview were slated to air on "Nightline," and then on "Good Morning America."
Step 2, Talk About Sex: An odd detail appeared in the fifth paragraph of the report's executive summary. After Christie's deputy chief of staff, Bill Stepien, quit his position in April 2013 to manage the governor's re-election campaign, the Mastro report said, he became "personally involved" with the woman who took his place in the governor's office, Bridget Anne Kelly.
"At some point after Stepien's departure to run the campaign, Kelly and Stepien became personally involved, although, by early August 2013, their personal relationship had cooled, apparently at Stepien's choice, and they largely stopped speaking," the report declared. Later, it returns to the topic, offering the surmise that Kelly's decision to participate in organizing the Fort Lee Lane closures may have had something to do with being dumped by her former boss Stepien: "Events in Kelly's personal life may have had some bearing on her subjective motivations and state of mind."
How Mastro and his team reaxhed these conclusions about the personal relationship determined is not known, since neither Stepien nor Kelly spoke to Christie's investigators. But the report's focus on the matter served two purposes. First, it explained away Kelly's involvement in the lane closures, attributing her actions by attacking her emotional state of mind. And second, by noting that Kelly and Stepien "had largely stopped speaking" when she sent an August email that it was "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," the report separated Stepien, Christie's right-hand political man, from the conspiracy. If Stepien wasn't involved, the implication is, then Christie wasn't involved.
Still, Stepien's attorney, Kevin Marino, was disgusted by what he described as a gratuitous and irrelevant effort at distraction on the part of Christie's lawyers. "The headlines, what I've seen so far, everyone seems to be leading with this relationship, and it's so completely off the point," Marino said.
Step 3, Attack: The report extensively attacks the claims of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer. In the wake of Bridgegate, she accused the Christie administration of using Sandy aid as a political carrot: if she supported a Rockefeller Group-backed redevelopment project in her town, she would receive the aid. Fully half of the Mastro report's executive summary is dedicated to breaking down Zimmer's allegations.
Zimmer said that three Christie officials threatened to take away Sandy aid if she didn't approve the project, and that lobbyists close to Christie pressed for the project. Christie's lawyers present extensive evidence to counter Zimmer's claims and her credibility, even including still photographs from video taken at one of the public appearances where she said a shakedown occurred. The photographs "show Mayor Zimmer starting the conversation and doing most of the talking during it, yawning about midway through, and then smiling at the end—hardly the demeanor one would expect of someone who had just been threatened."
In an effort to reveal inconsistencies in her allegations, the report cites one previous Zimmer statement made to WNYC about Christie. However, it ignores a recent WNYC/NJ Spotlight investigation that found irregularities in the awarding of Sandy aid to Hoboken and other New Jersey towns.
Step 4, "Does Not Recall": The lawyers take the most potentially damning new accusation and immediately refute it, then dismiss it. They say that David Wildstein, the governor's appointee at the Port Authority, told Christie's spokesman that he had told the governor about the lane closures while they were happening when the pair were together at a Ground Zero memorial event on Sept. 11, 2013. But they nonetheless conclude that this statement is bogus, because Christie said he didn't "recall" this happening. The report also explains why the governor wouldn't have recalled such a conversation: "[It] 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."
Step 5, Frame The Questions: Perhaps what was most evident in the report was what wasn't there. For example, none of the top five biggest names in the Bridgegate scandal were interviewed. Among the missing: David Samson, Christie's mentor, who is currently serving the governor as chairman of the Port Authority, which operates the George Washington Bridge. Samson is referred to in previously released documents as being the one who would "retaliate" against the official who finally re-opened the lanes. So did he retaliate? Why was he chosen to retaliate? And why didn't Christie make sure he would sit down for an interview with his lawyers? By not posing these questions, the report steers clear of some of the most damaging revelations about one of Christie's closest allies and advisors.
Step 6, Propose Reforms: Christie's lawyers make some intriguing recommendations going forward, such as the appointment of a chief ethics officer in the governor's office and the restructuring of the Port Authority. Yet, the report portrays the episodes that gave rise to its investigation as the isolated acts of aberrant figures: of Wildstein, who is described as having come up with the lane-closure idea "like so many other 'crazy' ones he’d had before that," and of Kelly, portrayed as a jilted ex.
So why are systemic changes necessary if nothing systemic went wrong on Christie's watch? There is a disconnect between the findings and the recommendations. But people expect reform after a scandal; "reformer" is part of the Christie image. Tear a page from Crisis Management 101.