Inquiry Is Said to Clear Christie, but That’s His Lawyers’ Verdict
By MICHAEL BARBARO
MARCH 23, 2014
With his office suddenly engulfed in scandal over lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey two months ago summoned a pair of top defense lawyers from an elite law firm to the State House and asked them to undertake an extensive review of what had gone wrong.
Now, after 70 interviews and at least $1 million in legal fees to be paid by state taxpayers, that review is set to be released, and according to people with firsthand knowledge of the inquiry, it has uncovered no evidence that the governor was involved in the plotting or directing of the lane closings.
The review is the first of multiple inquiries into a scandal that has jeopardized Mr. Christie’s political future. It will be viewed with intense skepticism, not only because it was commissioned by the governor but also because the firm conducting it, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, has close ties to the Christie administration and the firm’s lawyers were unable to interview three principal players in the shutdowns, including Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor’s former deputy chief of staff.
But lawyers from the team who led the inquiry are prepared to vigorously defend their work, which they described as an unfettered look into the inner workings of an administration known to prize loyalty and privacy.
Randy M. Mastro, the lawyer leading the internal investigation, said that the level of cooperation from Mr. Christie’s office and the volume of records reviewed had allowed investigators to resolve the most pressing questions to arise from the scandal. The governor himself handed over his iPhone and telephone records and allowed the lawyers to search his government and private email accounts.
Questioned about the credibility of an internal inquiry, Mr. Mastro said there was no incentive to sugarcoat the findings. Any shortcomings of the investigation are likely to be exposed by parallel investigations now underway, by the State Legislature and the United States attorney in New Jersey, Paul J. Fishman.
“At the end of the day, we will be judged by whether we got this right,” said Mr. Mastro, who called the review “comprehensive and exhaustive.”
Much about the review remains secret, and Mr. Mastro declined to describe any specific content before its release. But it is expected to lay out a detailed narrative of the events, motivations and communications leading up to the closing of the lanes, which snarled traffic in Fort Lee, N.J., for thousands of commuters last September.
According to those familiar with the report, it will also address what and when Mr. Christie and his aides knew about the lane closings; analyze the structure, practices and culture of the Christie administration that contributed to the scandal; and issue pointed recommendations to prevent such conduct.
It is not known whether the investigation resolved the crucial issue of whether Mr. Christie created or condoned a culture that fostered political intimidation.
Among the issues covered, according to people familiar with the report, is the widespread use by Mr. Christie’s aides of private email accounts to conduct government business. The report is also expected to offer a tough assessment of the intergovernmental affairs unit inside the governor’s office, where Ms. Kelly worked.
Over the past two months, a dozen lawyers from Gibson Dunn questioned more than 70 people, including the governor and the lieutenant governor, every current member of Mr. Christie’s senior staff and top New Jersey officials at the Port Authority. The lawyers also gained access to government and private email accounts of key current and former administration officials and obtained records of their incoming and outgoing phone calls and text messages.
The investigation’s most significant obstacle was the lack of access to the three figures at the center of the lane closings — Ms. Kelly, the author of the infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email; Bill Stepien, the governor’s former aide and campaign manager; and David Wildstein, a Christie ally at the Port Authority — who all declined to be interviewed.
But the lawyers had access to a wide range of documents, including thousands of emails left on government servers by current and former employees like Ms. Kelly, whom Mr. Christie fired in January, and Mr. Stepien, who left the administration in 2013.
They drew on records from the Port Authority, which runs the bridge; reviewed documents subpoenaed from Mr. Wildstein and Bill Baroni, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority who was involved in the lane closings; and interviewed independent witnesses and associates of Mr. Christie outside of government.
And because of frequent interactions between administration and Port Authority officials, the lawyers were able to piece together communications leading up to, during and after the lane shutdowns, despite the lack of cooperation from Ms. Kelly, Mr. Stepien and Mr. Wildstein.
Their internal inquiry examined not only the administration’s conduct in the lane closings, but also the claim by the mayor of Hoboken, Dawn Zimmer, that Mr. Christie’s staff threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy recovery money from Hoboken unless the mayor supported a real estate development that the governor wanted built there. Neither Ms. Zimmer nor Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, agreed to be interviewed, but Gibson Dunn lawyers received thousands of internal documents from the towns.
The review will be delivered to Mr. Christie, who has promised to make it public quickly without alterations. The work by Mr. Mastro’s firm is being paid for by state taxpayers, at a rate of $650 an hour. That has led to criticism from some Democrats who say the public should not be asked to underwrite what they view as the governor’s damage-control efforts.
Gibson Dunn has worked for the administration in the past, and Mr. Christie is friendly with a top partner there, Debra Wong Yang, who like him was appointed United States attorney by President George W. Bush in the early 2000s.
In mid-January, after emails emerged showing that Mr. Christie’s aides had carried out the lane closings, the governor requested a meeting with Ms. Yang, and Mr. Mastro, a high-profile litigator who had served as a deputy mayor in the administration of Rudolph W. Giuliani and had never before met Mr. Christie.
At the meeting, on the afternoon of Jan. 14, after delivering his State of the State speech, Mr. Christie told the corporate lawyers that he wanted a full airing of what had happened.
Five seasoned former federal prosecutors were involved in the law firm’s inquiry, including Reed Brodsky, a former assistant United States attorney who helped lead the successful prosecution of Raj Rajaratnam, who headed one of the world’s largest hedge funds, on insider trading charges; and Avi Weitzman, who oversaw major organized-crime investigations for the United States attorney’s office in New York’s Southern District.
Besides the 12 lawyers who worked on the internal investigation, a group of Gibson Dunn lawyers is assigned to respond to the broad subpoenas issued by the Legislature and the United States attorney’s office for records from Mr. Christie’s office.
Since January, lawyers from the firm have become a regular presence inside the office of the governor, turning a second-floor conference room in the State House into an interrogation room. In New York, they set up camp in a 47th-floor conference room at Gibson Dunn, using organizational charts drawn on erasable boards to keep track of key figures in Mr. Christie’s world.
Maria Comella, a spokeswoman for Mr. Christie, said the lawyers faced “no restrictions on their access to governor’s office staff, documents or any other forms of communications.”
Friendly exchanges with Christie aides turned a bit frosty as the lawyers’ requests multiplied, according to interviews. A less-than-popular move: collecting iPhones and BlackBerrys from the governor’s top aides for inspection.
No matter the conclusions of the internal review, suspicious Democrats are prepared to pounce on it. They said Mr. Christie would not have needed to hire expensive lawyers if he had promptly questioned his aides when the bridge controversy arose last fall.
Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat who is involved the Legislature’s investigation, deemed it “too little, too late.”http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/24/nyregion/inquiry-is-said-to-clear-christie-but-thats-his-lawyers-verdict.html?ref=us&_r=0