Review clears Christie in bridge scandal

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An internal review ordered by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) absolves him and most of his senior staff of direct involvement in the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge last year. [READ INVESTIGATORS' REPORT.]

After reviewing more than 250,000 documents — including personal texts and emails of the Governor and his senior staff — and conducting interviews with more than 70 witnesses, the firm investigating the closures found no evidence Christie knew about the closures. 

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“From our examination of these records, other available documents, and our 126 interviews of Governor Christie and others who corroborated his account, we conclude that Governor Christie had no knowledge of the lane realignment before September 9, 2013, and no role in the lane realignment decision,” reads the report from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. 

It also found that Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmerman’s claims that the Christie administration withheld Superstorm Sandy aid from her town as an act of political retribution were “demonstrably false in material aspects.”

The scandal surrounding the lane closures that snarled traffic in Fort Lee, N.J. over four days in September of last year has tarnished Christie’s administration and crippled his presidential prospects.

While Christie told a local radio host Wednesday night that “there's certainly nothing that's happened in the last number of months, since we talked about this the last time, that would make me think any differently about my ability to pursue” the presidency, the issue and continued fallout has caused Republican donors to rethink their initial interest in him and resulted in a drop in the polls for the governor.

Christie’s allies, however, will likely point to the report as concrete evidence of the governor’s innocence, which he’s proclaimed since the situation gained national attention last December.

The report states that Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, and former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official David Wildstein were the primary officials behind the closures as an apparent act of political retribution.

And it removes some culpability for the two other officials that left office as a result of the scandal: Christie’s former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, whom Christie fired after emails surfaced linking him to the closures; and former Port Authority official Bill Baroni, who stepped down last year.

The authors of the report “did not uncover evidence that Baroni was the driving force” behind the decision, and while Stepien “had prior knowledge” of the idea to conduct a traffic study, there was “no conclusive evidence that the knew of any ulterior motive for it.”

Still, the report suggests that the decisions by Kelly, Wildstein and Stepien to plead the fifth to avoid testifying to a state legislature investigative committee suggests they engaged in misconduct.

But the review raises nearly as many questions as it purports to answer. 

The authors of the report write that while the lane realignment appears to have been an act of retaliation, “the precise reason for either Kelly’s or Wildstein’s animus toward Mayor Sokolich…remains unclear.”

They note that coming to final conclusions about the motivation behind the closures was difficult because of ambiguous language used in many of the emails. And the report found evidence that Kelly both lied to Christie and worked to cover up her involvement in the closures, at one point directing an aide to delete an email she had sent to her.

While the report’s authors argue the closures were not orchestrated in response to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s refusal to endorse Christie for reelection, they also reveal that Kelly’s order for “some traffic problems in Fort Lee” came the day after she checked in with a staffer to find out if Sokolich had endorsed.

And though the report states that there’s no indication Christie knew about the lane closures while they were underway, it also reveals that Wildstein said he told Christie about the traffic study at a public event during the four days of closures. 

Photographs have shown Wildstein and Christie both in attendance a 9/11 Memorial event on Sept. 11 of last year, on the third day of the closures, presumably the moment he informed the governor of the traffic study. 

However, the report says there’s “no evidence we have seen that [the two] actually had any substantive discussion” at the event, and Christie remembers no such conversation.

It also offers a revealing look into the culture of Christie’s administration, and Christie’s own governing style. The report details a meeting Christie held with his senior staff on Dec. 12 of last year to discuss issues within the administration, which Christie characterized as “senioritis” following his reelection win.

“…He stood the entire time and raised his voice,” the report describes. “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.’”

Christie told his staff to speak up if they had any further information about the closures before he spoke to the press later that day, and “slowly scanned the room, making eye contact with each person, in order to convey the gravity of his decision.”

And in early January, soon after the emails tying Kelly, Stepien and Wildstein to the closures went public, Christie called his top staff together for an “emotional session, in which the Governor, welling up with tears, expressed shock at the revelations, directed Kelly’s immediate firing for lying to him, and also decided to sever ties with Stepien.”

It appears, as well, Stepien and Kelly had a short-lived personal relationship, which “cooled” by August of last year and subsequently resulted in limited communication between the two.

Christie’s critics have noted the law firm conducting the review, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, has close ties to the governor. A top partner at the firm, Debra Wong Yang, was appointed United States attorney by President George W. Bush in the early 2000s just as Christie was and is reportedly friendly with the governor.

The firm also drew its conclusions without interviewing Kelly, Wildstein, Baroni or Stepien.

Democratic National Committee Communications Director Mo Elleithee said the reported $1 million in taxpayer dollars spent on the report produced little new information.

“What we didn’t get for that hefty price tag to New Jersey taxpayers were any interviews with the key figures who executed the plan or any insight into why this happened.  There was  no real evidence, no real findings, no real answers, and definitely no exoneration,” Elleithee said.

“This report was nothing more than an expensive sham.”

Randy M. Mastro, the lawyer who led the investigation, defended the firm’s work and said that, because two investigations currently underway by the State Legislature and the United States attorney for New Jersey will be made public in coming weeks, “we have to work even harder to make sure we get it right.”

--This post was updated at 1:21 p.m.