An investigation launched by Gov. Chris Christie into shutting down lanes to the George Washington Bridge last September cleared the governor as expected, but it widened the circle of Christie allies involved in the politically inspired traffic scandal.
The report found that Christie's former campaign manager Bill Stepien and Bill Baroni, who Christie appointed to the powerful Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, both lied when asked whether they were aware of the lane closings that backed up cars and paralyzed the streets of Fort Lee, N.J. for several days.
The mammoth document paints a portrait of a governor’s office with structural flaws severe enough that the attorneys believe it must be cleaned up by an ethics czar and constituent advocate.
“Our investigation found that Governor Christie did not know of the lane realignment beforehand and had no involvement in the decision to realign the lanes,” the attorneys wrote in summarizing their more than 900 page document, released publicly today and reviewed by Christie’s office in advance. “He does not recall becoming aware of the lane realignment during the period, but would not have considered a traffic issue memorable in any event.”
In a news conference today, lead attorney Randy Mastro said there was "not a shred of evidence" to implicate Christie.
He defended the integrity of the investigation despite the fact that it was created by Christie.
"We believe we have gotten to the truth," Mastro said.
The report also addresses an unrelated accusation that the Christie administration threatened to withhold Sandy relief funds from the mayor of Hoboken, N.J., until she green-lit a development project. The lawyers write that those “allegations are, in material respects, demonstrably false.”
As for the lane shutdown, the report lays the blame for the idea, execution and the days worth of crippling traffic it caused squarely on Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and David Wildstein, a Christie appointee to the agency that runs the George Washington Bridge and other transit links between New Jersey and New York.
Kelly and Wildstein had some sort of “ulterior motive” and “animosity” toward the mayor of Fort Lee, and orchestrated as payback the unannounced closing two of the three local access lanes at the Fort Lee entrance to the bridge. The attorneys said they didn’t find evidence supporting the public belief that the mayor was being punished for refusing to endorse Christie’s re-election bid.
They also don’t definitely answer the question of whether an actual traffic study was conducted. But they write that studying Fort Lee’s dedicated access lanes was discussed by Wildstein as early as 2010 and “was Wildstein’s ‘idea,’ like so many other ‘crazy’ ones he’d had before that never got off the ground.”
The document, compiled from 70 interviews and a review of 250,000 pages of emails and other records, is sure to be painted as a whitewash by Christie’s detractors. The lawyers write that the governor’s account “rings true,” and that Christie became emotional and tearful upon learning he was betrayed by some of those closest to him.
The report shows Christie to have been prescient late last year as the bad publicity generated by the lane closures crept closer and closer to the governor’s inner circle.
“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.