Two months after his last press conference on the subject, Governor Chris Christie once again confronted the infamous George Washington Bridge lane closures head-on and addressed the issue that has mushroomed into a major political crisis.
On March 27, Gibson Dunn & Drutcher LLP, the law firm retained by Governor Christie to conduct an internal review of his administration’s role in the Bridgegate scandal, released its report, Randy Mastro, a partner at Gibson Dunn and a one-time Deputy Mayor under former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, unveiled the findings at a press conference in New York.
After a two-month long investigation, which consisted of 70 witness interviews and a review of 250,000 documents, The 360-page report essentially cleared Governor Christie of any wrongdoing and Mastro proclaimed the report “is a vindication of Governor Christie.”
“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,” stated the report. “He does not recall becoming aware of the lane realignment during the period the lanes were closed, but would not have considered a traffic issue memorable in any event.”
While the probe found that Christie had not been involved whatsoever with the lane closures and the chaos and traffic jams that ensued from September 9 to 13, 2013, it did implicate some of the Governor’s chief aides and confidants as the main protagonists.
Concerning Christie’s former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly and David Wildstein, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority, the report stated that Kelly and Wildstein “knowingly participated in this plan to realign toll lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge at Fort Lee, at least in part, for some ulterior motive to target [Fort Lee] Mayor [Mark] Sokolich.”
The report also alluded to a romantic relationship between Kelly and Bill Stepien, Christie’s chief political guru, which ended one month before the lane closures. Sources speculate this revelation was included to explain Kelly’s frame of mind in the weeks leading up to the lane closures.
The report detailed the contents of emails and text messages between Kelly and Wildstein prior to the lane closures, as well as throughout the three-day period during which the traffic patterns in Fort Lee were altered.
The report also noted that Wildstein said he informed Governor Christie about the lane closures as they were occurring during a 9/11 Memorial event on September 11, 2013, although it added that Christie, who has repeatedly maintained that he had no knowledge of his aides’ plan, did not recall the conversation. According to the report, “it seems highly unlikely such a brief mention, even if made by Wildstein to the Governor, would have registered with the Governor at all.”
The inquiry also examined the alleged threats that were directed at Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer by Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. According to Mayor Zimmer, the Lieutenant Governor attempted to intimidate her and compel her to support a real estate project backed by the Christie Administration, allegedly using the withholding of Hurricane Sandy recovery funds as a means through which to garner the Mayor’s blessing and secure her approval.
According to the report, “Mayor Zimmer’s allegations are, in material respects, demonstrably false. 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.”
After conducting its investigation and assessing the circumstances behind Bridgegate, the Gibson Dunn report set forth a number of recommendations. In an effort to prevent similar occurrences in the Governor’ Administration and preempt future problems, the report suggested restricting the use of personal email accounts for conducting official state business, disbanding the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and reorganizing its functions within a new and expanded Governor’s Office of Constituent and Legislative Services, appointing an ombudsperson within the Governor’s office who would report directly to the Governor and issue periodic public reports, and appointing a chief ethics officer responsible for ethics enforcement within the Governor’s office.
In a sharp critique of the organizational structure of the Port Authority of New York and Jersey, the report recommended that the Governors of New Jersey and New York coordinate to restructure the Port Authority by appointing a Bi-State Commission to recommend reforms, and promote legislative reforms to promote transparency at the Port Authority.
The report’s release was met with much skepticism and an abundance of criticism.
“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,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Senator Loretta Weinberg, who co-chair a state legislative panel which is investigating the lane closures. “The people of New Jersey need a full accounting of what happened. This review has deficiencies that raise questions about a lack of objectivity and thoroughness.”
The Gibson Dunn attorneys did not interview Bridget Anne Kelly, Bill Stepien, and David Wildstein, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority, since they all declined to be interviewed or to participate in their probe.
Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who was harshly criticized by the report, was unbridled in her response. “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.”
Michael Critchley, Bridget Anne Kelly’s attorney, issued a statement strongly defending his client. “The report’s venomous, gratuitous, and inappropriate sexist remarks concerning Ms. Kelly have no place in what is alleged to be a professional and independent report…Ms. Kelly is not a liar.”
Critchley went even further, seeming to imply that his client may end up cooperating with the federal investigation.
“The only credible investigation into the lane closings is being conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Critchley said. “If Ms. Kelly were provided with the appropriate procedural safeguards, she will be fully cooperative and provide truthful and complete answers to any questions asked of her by the appropriate law enforcement authorities.”
Hours after the report was made public, Governor Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, sat down with Diane Sawyer for a much anticipated interview on ABC News. The Governor, who posted photographs of his children talking to Sawyer on his Twitter feed, pinned the blame for Bridgegate on his aides and expressd his displeasure at what happened.
The next day, Governor Christie held a news conference and announced that David Sampson, the Chairman of the Port Authority, had tendered his resignation earlier in the day. Sampson, a close friend of the Governor, had come under fire for his involvement in the lane closure episode and for reports that his law firm may have improperly benefitted from his role as head of the Port Authority. A state legislative committee is vowing to continue its investigation of the lane closures, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office is conducting its own inquiry.
Christie was confident and sometimes combative as he defended the Gibson Dunn report, proclaiming his innocence, and berating some of the reporters questioning him.
By N. Aaron Troodler