“On December 13, 2013, the Governor convened a special meeting of his senior staff,” the lawyers wrote of a Republican governor who had just won a second term by a landslide in heavily Democratic New Jersey.
“He stood the entire time and raised his voice,” according to the report. “He told them he was concerned they were all suffering from ‘senioritis’ following the election. He said the national attention was a double-edged sword: ‘The spotlight can turn to a searchlight real quick.’ He mentioned a number of miscues, but then focused on the George Washington Bridge lane realignment fiasco. He said words to the effect of: ‘This is a mess, and now I have to clean it up.’”
Once a front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, Christie could only watch as his political future and his gubernatorial administration were put in jeopardy by the bridge scandal. On Jan. 8, emails surfaced showing Kelly green-lighted the lane closures in email exchanges with Wildstein. In less than a day, a federal criminal probe was announced while lawmakers quickly expanded their own investigation.
Christie, in turn, retained prominent New York City attorney Randy Mastro and his firm to help him get to the bottom of the controversy. The report released today is the product of that effort, but is separate from the ongoing state legislative and federal criminal investigations.
Mastro and his team had access to official and private emails from scores of people in the governor’s office and connected to the scandal. They were even given access to the emails and cell phones of the governor himself.
What they didn’t have was the ability to question Wildstein, Kelly, or Stepien – all of whom declined to cooperate with the internal probe as well as the Legislature’s investigation, citing their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Christie’s lawyers wrote that the trio’s refusal to cooperate lead to “adverse inferences (that) can appropriately be drawn.”
The lawyers detailed efforts by Kelly to cover up her role in the scandal, an effort thwarted by her assistant who refused to follow an order to delete emailed evidence. They also confirmed publicly the long-rumored “personal” relationship between Kelly and Stepien, who had been Kelly’s boss and held her position in the governor’s office before shifting to Christie’s re-election campaign.
“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 lawyers wrote.
The attorneys’ review also looked at accusations from Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who said top Christie officials tried to shake her down by withholding funding for Sandy relief until she approved a development deal connected to one of the governor’s top patrons, Port Authority Chairman David Samson. The lawyers dispensed with Zimmer’s allegations in blunt terms.
“Our investigation found that Mayor Zimmer’s allegations are, in material respects, demonstrably false,” the lawyers wrote. “They are contradicted by contemporaneous documents, other witnesses’ accounts, and her own prior statements. In sum, the subjective perceptions she may have do not match objective reality, as reflected in the hard evidence uncovered during our investigation.”
The lawyers also presented Christie with a handful of recommendations, which he is expected to embrace quickly. Among the changes proposed:
• A reorganization of the governor’s office that would replace the Intergovernmental Affairs office that Kelly ran with one more focused on legislative and constituent services;
• The creation of the position of a chief ethics officer who would train and monitor staffers’ conduct;
• Restrictions on the use of personal email account for official business;
• Hiring an ombudsperson who would handle complaints from the public concerning actions by officials in the governor’s office;
• Restructuring of the massive Port Authority, which is run equally by the governors of New York and New Jersey and has long been viewed as an almost impregnable political fiefdom that exists under a law all its own.