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“Chris Christie’s Problems Are Just Beginning”: Why The Bridgegate Indictments Don’t Clear His Name

While other Republican presidential contenders get to make their case for why they should lead the country, or take pot shots at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton,  New Jersey Governor Christie is doing his best to not let his past define him. But when that  past, in the form of Bridgegate,  continues to dominate the news, that gets  harder and harder to do.

Just wait for the Bridgegate trials to begin.

If Bloomberg News is right, Federal prosecutors haven’t just been going after Bill Baroni, Bridget Anne Kelly, and David Wildstein, all of whom were indicted yesterday on federal corruption charges, and the latter of whom has already pleaded guilty; prosecutors are also apparently looking at former Port Authority Chairman and Christie confidant David Sampson in a separate criminal probe not related to Bridegate, but to allegations Samson tried to shake down United Airlines.

In the meantime, in damage control mode, Christie used Wildstein’s guilty plea and the indictments of Baroni and Kelly, and the fact that he was not himself named in the indictment, as proof that he’s in the clear on Bridgegate. In a statement, Christie said that the “charges make clear what I’ve said from day one is true: I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act.”

U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who has been on the Bridgegate caper since January of 2014, did offer Christie a kind of qualified lifeline at his press conference Friday, saying: “Based currently on the evidence available  to my office and the agents  with whom we have been working, we will not be bringing any further charges related to the matters discussed in today’s indictment.”

Yet just minutes after Wildstein’s guilty plea was formally announced, his lawyer Allan Zegas was serving up red meat for hungry reporters. Zegas relayed to reporters Wildstein’s contrition for his role in the  alleged plot, but before he walked away from the microphones, he re-iterated what he has said before, that “evidence exists that the Governor knew of the lane closures while they were occurring.”

Zegas told reporters that Wildstein, one of Christie’s former point men in the Port Authority, had been cooperating for some time with federal prosecutors, had answered thousands of question from them, and was still being questioned. Zegas volunteered also that “there is a lot more that will come out,” all of which he said that Wildstein will be willing to testify about at trial. Wildstein is scheduled to be sentenced in August, but that could be moved until after the trial, when the government and the judge in the case can fully assess just how well Wildstein cooperated with prosecutors.

When U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman was asked directly at yesterday’s press conference about Zegas’s tantalizing comments about Christie, Fishman declined to answer. When Fishman was asked directly if Christie “was in the clear,” he said “I am not sure what that means so I really can’t answer that question.”

“Is he going to be further investigated,” the questioner pressed.

“I am not going to comment on whether anybody is going to be further investigated in connection with this or any other matter ever,” said Fishman.

“Can we say [Christie is] cooperating?” another reporter asked.

“I am not going to say whether witnesses are, or are not, cooperating.”Fishman responded.

Another reporter asked if it could be said that Governor Christie had been misled by the conspirators. Fishman passed on that question as well.

But Fishman did have his version of a “stay tuned” tease when he confirmed  that other names might surface in the case as “un-indicted co-conspirators,” who may have been willful participants but might not be charged for their role in what prosecutors allege was a criminal conspiracy.

“The indictment does say Bridget Kelly, Bill Baroni, David Wildstein and others” Fishman conceded. “We don’t identify un-indicted co-conspirators in our indictment by name unless they have been previously mentioned in a publicly filed court document, and that is not the case here. There may come a time during the course of the proceedings when we  will make a disclosure to the court or defense council who the co-conspirators are, but it is Department of Justice policy not to do it now,” Fishman told reporters.

“To charge someone and to convict someone, we have an obligation to only bring a case in which we have sufficient evidence  to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is in fact guilty of a crime. That is not the standard for somebody to be an un-indicted co-conspirator. The standard for an un-indicted co-conspirator can be less than that. It can also be that we don’t plan on charging somebody that was involved,” Fishman said.

The indictment charges that Baroni, Kelly and Wildstein purposefully timed the George Washington Bridge lane closures in September 2013 to create maximum havoc on the first day of school, punishment doled out after Fort Lee’s Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich refused to endorse Christie for re-election. What will come out in excruciating detail at trial is just how vindictive the plan actually was in its particulars. This will no doubt provide an opportunity for the news media to run archival tape of Governor Christie publicly offering the defense that the Fort Lee traffic jam was caused by a legitimate Port Authority traffic study, a cover story Federal prosecutors now charge was entirely fabricated, and a part of the criminal conspiracy.

Based on the tenor of  the post-indictment press availabilities for lawyers representing Bill Baroni, and a similar availability held by former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly and her attorney, what the public is going to be treated to at trial will be a public circular firing squad. It will be Christie operative turning on Christie operative, all with their liberty hanging in the balance. All parties have vowed to mount vigorous defenses that will paint  David Widlstein as a liar.

And what do all three of these folks have in common? Governor Christie thought they were all fit to hold high positions of public trust.

 

By: Robert Hennelly, Salon, May 2, 2015

May 4, 2015 Posted by | Bridgegate, Chris Christie, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Someone Orchestrated That”: Why Did Port Authority Police Tell Angry Motorists To Blame The Democratic Mayor Of Fort Lee?

We’ve learned quite a bit about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) scandals over the last couple of months, including the fiasco surrounding the George Washington Bridge lane closures, but there are some core, foundational questions that haven’t been answered. Indeed, these are questions neither the governor’s team nor any of its allies have made even the slightest effort to address.

It remains unclear, for example, exactly who conspired to use the power of the Christie administration to deliberately cripple a New Jersey community last September. It’s equally unclear why members of Team Christie hatched and executed their plot.

And then there’s the cover-up of the administration’s admitted misdeeds. It’s this third angle that garnered some attention over the weekend, including an interesting piece from the Bergen Record’s Mike Kelly, who reported that state investigators are asking a simple question: why did Port Authority police tell angry motorists to blame the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee?

That question, which has lingered for months, may no longer be dismissed as just a footnote in the controversy now enveloping the Christie administration over whether the traffic snarl that overwhelmed Fort Lee’s streets for parts of five days was really political retribution.

A special state legislative committee examining the scandal now plans to investigate whether the call-the-mayor instructions were really a way of getting the message to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, that the crippling traffic jams were punishment for his failure to endorse the reelection of Governor Christie, a Republican who had been touted as a possible future presidential candidate.

“It appears that someone issued instructions or talking points,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the co-chairman of the special Assembly-Senate committee investigating the lane closure scandal. “Someone orchestrated that.”

Almost immediately after the Christie administration deliberately paralyzed Fort Lee, locals started demanding answers. For reasons that remain unclear, Kelly explained, Port Authority police officers at the scene told furious drivers they should call the mayor or borough officials.

The implication was hardly subtle: those looking for someone to blame should look at Sokolich. In reality, that didn’t make any sense, so why did the officers tell motorists something that wasn’t true? Or more to the point, who told the officers to convey false information?

This isn’t some tangent. To learn who was responsible is to better understand why Team Christie did this and who helped orchestrate the cover-up.

At this point, it’s still unclear why Port Authority police said what they said, but it’s clear state lawmakers looking into the scandal consider this important.

“It goes to the whole issue of abuse of power and efforts to conceal,” Wisniewski told Kelly. “It’s an important issue that we ultimately need to dive into.”

Meanwhile, MSNBC’s “Up with Steve Kornacki” moved the ball forward yesterday, too.

A Port Authority police officer with personal ties to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was at the George Washington Bridge when access lanes were closed last September and personally drove David Wildstein, the Christie appointee who supervised the closings, on a tour of the area as traffic brought it to a standstill.

Documents submitted to a New Jersey legislative committee by Wildstein also show that the officer,  Lieutenant Thomas “Chip” Michaels, appears to have sent periodic text messages to Wildstein updating him on the effects of the lane closures and their crippling impact on the town of Fort Lee. In one message, on the first day of the lane closures, Michaels told Wildstein he might have an idea to “make this better.” It is not clear what he meant.

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, February 17, 2014

February 18, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Chris Christie Bullies Again”: Bullies Bully Out Of Weakness, And Christie Is Now Weaker Than He’s Ever Been

Gov. Chris Christie says he’s been humbled, that he’s been doing some “soul-searching” after his staff got caught arranging traffic jams to punish political enemies.

But bullies bully out of weakness, and Christie is now weaker than he’s ever been. He can’t possibly give up his only real political asset—a talent for intimidation that makes victims want to be on his side to win his protection—when he needs it most.

In only the latest example, his legal team is spitting paper at the Jersey pols who’ve crossed him. Christie’s choice as lead attorney for his office’s “internal review,” Randy Mastro, sent a letter, obtained by The Bergen Record, to Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer requesting a “private interview” and documents, including her correspondence with the press.

“In a show of force,” The Record reports, Mastro also wrote to “Hoboken officials that he had assembled a team of ‘five former federal prosecutors’ to look into Zimmer’s claims.”

Zimmer, of course, claims that Christie officials had threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy aid if she didn’t support a particular real estate development, charges those officials deny.

At the same time Christie lawyers were beckoning Zimmer to their den, the governor’s office sent a memo to supporters with press clips about Zimmer that, it says, found “serious questions of authenticity, contradictions, and hypocrisy.”

Zimmer’s allegations are now the subject of a US Attorney investigation, and her attorney replied to Mastro by saying, “We question whether it is appropriate for the Governor’s Office, in essence, to be investigating itself, particularly when an investigation of the same subject matter is being conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

“Five former federal prosecuters,” charges of hypocrisy, a “private interview”—this stuff reeks of bullying. But Mastro, The Record writes, “seems to try to dispel any notion that the letter is meant to intimidate a witness—he notified federal authorities in advance that he would be contacting potential witnesses, he wrote.”

Still, as James Cohen, a law professor at Fordham University, told the Star Ledger, Mastro’s letters show him acting more like a defense attorney than as a fact-finder conducting an “internal review” to learn who dunnit. “The letters strike me as a fairly heavy-handed attempt to intimidate—and cleverly done,” Cohen said.

No matter how much humble pie Christie insists he’s eating, he just can’t quit the bullying. Remember how, during his marathon press conference, a reporter told him that Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich said it’d be “premature” for the governor to visit his town and apologize for the dangerous, five-day traffic jam his people created at the George Washington Bridge? Christie ignored Sokolich’s wishes, parked his entourage at Sokolich’s office, staged some photo ops with citizens not throwing tomatoes, and left the Fort Lee mayor saying he was relieved that Christie promised there’d be no more retribution. Now, Christie’s lawyers have invited Sokolich and his staff to hand over documents, too.

The attempt to put the squeeze on NJ mayors does double duty by also intimidating other potential witnesses and officials receiving subpoenas (the NJ legislators investigating the bridge scandal issued eighteen new subpoenas yesterday).

It’s all part of the web of fear that Christie has established throughout New Jersey. It’s aimed as much, if not more, at Democrats than at Republicans, and until the GWB scandal broke, that fear was passed off as the Christie miracle of “bipartisanship.”

Even though the former front-runner in the GOP presidential race now looks like he’ll never make it to the primaries, even though Christie boosters like Joe Scarborough say he should resign as the head of the Republican Governors Association, anyone who the governor’s office can conceivably touch still lives in fear of his wrath.

The bully can still steal their lunch.

UPDATE: This afternoon Christie spokesperson Colin Reed sent an email pushing back against New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, saying she made “no fewer than five misleading statements” on Morning Joe today. Most irksome perhaps was what she said about Mastro’s letters: “They’re trying to sort of threaten people, not explicitly, but saying, you know, we’re going to go back after you if you come after us.”

 

By: Leslie Savan, The Nation, February 11, 2014

February 12, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Something’s Still Fishy In Jersey”: There Are Reasons To Question Chris Christie’s Bridge Scandal Story

I doubt the veracity of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christies’ bumper-to-bumper mea culpa. A trove of circumstantial evidence indicates that he had at least some knowledge that his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and former Port Authority officer David Wildstein colluded to wreak traffic havoc on Fort Lee, N.J.

It wasn’t like the week of Sept. 9, 2013 saw a typical commute on the George Washington Bridge. Drivers spent more than two hours stuck in traffic, and news of it was all over the New Jersey press. Thousands of people, including Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich and New York State Port Authority officials, were screaming bloody murder up and down the Palisades Parkway. It’s amazing that the entire New Jersey phone grid didn’t collapse from the tidal wave of calls flooding Christie’s office.

Even if the governor didn’t take one of these calls, he was in the midst of campaign season. His campaign team would’ve told him about the problem and how to respond to reporters should the traffic jam come up on the campaign trail. They wouldn’t have wanted to put him in a position where he might cede his advantage to his democratic challenger Barbara Buono.

Most telling was that on Sept. 13th, Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, ordered the lanes open, a decision made by a senior New York state official affecting the New Jersey side of the bridge. Cuomo’s office would have had to have spoken with Christie’s office before the order went out. Resolving that traffic jam depended on a lot of moving parts that needed to be coordinated on a state and Port Authority level.

In a perfect world, Christie would resign, showing deference to the people of New Jersey, not spend 107 minutes spouting flimflam meant to keep his presidential aspirations afloat. But this isn’t a perfect world – it’s a world where politicians can cough up a well-crafted, poll-tested apology to avoid punishment for their bad behavior.

In keeping with the standard trajectory of most political scandals, many commentators are now blaming Democrats for the scrutiny Christie is under. My colleague Peter Roff posted a bait-and-switch piece arguing that governor’s apology was a proper way to school President Obama on how to handle Benghazi, Fast and Furious and his dog Bo’s pooping on the White House rug.

Although it’s easy to blame every problem on Obamacare, none of what Roff argues has anything to do with anything. The Christie administration engineered a major traffic jam to get back at a politician whose endorsement or lack thereof would have made no difference to the inevitable outcome of the election. Christie’s apology doesn’t make him the George Washington Bridge Memorial Professor of Presidential Leadership.

The most disappointing part about this whole affair is that another talented politician with the potential to become president has collapsed under the weight of his own self-destructive behavior. Perhaps Christie will run for president next year, but the GOP would be better off if he didn’t.  There are plenty of prominent Republicans out there who’ve demonstrated enough integrity to qualify for 2016. Perhaps they’ll throw their hats into the race soon, of course, provided that they’re not stuck in traffic on announcement day.

 

By: Jamie Chandler, U. S. News and World Report, January 10, 2014

January 11, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Chris Christie Is Not The Victim”: The Governor Accepted Full Responsibility But Not An Ounce Of Blame

You know a politician is having a bad day when he has to stand before a news conference and plead, “I am who I am, but I am not a bully.”

Frankly, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was unconvincing on that score Thursday as he attempted to contain a widening abuse-of-power scandal. Moreover, Christie displayed a degree of egocentrism that can only be described as stunning. His apologies would have sounded more sincere if he hadn’t portrayed himself as the real victim.

A bit of background is needed: During his successful reelection campaign last fall, Christie — shown by polls to be a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, should he decide to seek it — tried to run up the score by winning endorsements from elected officials across the state, Democrats as well as Republicans.

The mayor of Fort Lee, the town on the New Jersey end of the George Washington Bridge to New York City, declined to give Christie his support. Shortly thereafter, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, sent an e-mail to an official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — the agency that controls the bridge — that said: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

The e-mail went to David Wildstein, who was installed at the Port Authority by Christie and has known the governor since high school. He replied to Kelly: “Got it.”

Four weeks later, on Sept. 9, Wildstein ordered the closure of two traffic lanes approaching the bridge from Fort Lee, ostensibly to conduct a traffic study. This may sound like a minor inconvenience, but the George Washington Bridge is one of the most heavily traveled in the country. Closing the lanes caused hours-long traffic jams in Fort Lee for four straight days, snaring commuters in hopeless gridlock. In one widely reported incident, an elderly woman died of cardiac arrest after emergency responders were delayed by the snarl.

Further e-mail traffic involving Kelly, Wildstein and Christie’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien — mostly using their personal e-mail accounts, not their official ones — showed unalloyed glee at the mess Wildstein had created. Finally, a Port Authority higher-up discovered what Wildstein had done and reversed the order.

All along, Christie had ridiculed the suggestion that there was any political motivation in the lane closures. On Thursday, faced with proof to the contrary, he apologized and said he had been “betrayed” by staff members and associates he believed he could trust. “I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team,” he said.

Christie announced that he has fired Kelly — not because she helped create a maddening and dangerous situation for the people of Fort Lee but because she lied when Christie asked all the members of his senior staff whether they had any involvement in the affair.

That was the central message of Christie’s nearly two-hour performance before reporters: I was betrayed by people I trusted. I’m the victim here.

The whole episode “makes me ask . . . what did I do wrong to have these folks think it was okay to lie to me,” Christie said. He described his principal emotion as “sadness” at the betrayals by associates to whom he had shown loyalty — and from whom he expected loyalty in return.

The governor accepted full responsibility but not an ounce of blame. “Politics ain’t beanbag,” he said, but “that’s very, very different than saying that, you know, someone’s a bully.”

But is it really all that different? Christie maintained that he never sought the endorsement of Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich — never even met him, actually — and therefore had no reason to want him punished. What, then, would make his deputy chief of staff and several of his closest political associates think otherwise?

If Christie is truly in the mood for soul-searching, asking how his aides could tell him such lies should be secondary. The more urgent question is what Christie might have said or done to make these loyal lieutenants conclude it would be appropriate — and a lot of fun — to torment the people of Fort Lee because of the mayor’s refusal to pledge fealty.

Federal prosecutors are reviewing the whole affair. One obvious question is whether other officials who declined to endorse Christie faced retribution of any kind.

If voters see Christie’s pugnacious, in-your-face political persona as refreshing, he has a big future. If they see it as thuggish, he doesn’t. In that sense, you’re right, Governor. This is all about you.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, January 9, 2014

January 11, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie, Public Safety | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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