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Mastro ‘Exoneration’ Lays Out Christie Presidential Comeback Strategy

Zimmer, like Sokolich, provided some documents to the Mastro investigative team, but declined to be interviewed because she, like some lawyers interviewed, regarded Mastro’s inquiry as a “fishing expedition” designed to find out what Christie’s accusers knew prior to top officials in the Christie administration -- including perhaps Christie himself -- being subpoenaed to testify before the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the Wisniewski-Wildstein committee.

Wisniewski yesterday expressed chagrin that the Mastro inquiry did not put Christie administration officials under oath before questioning them – a mistake the legislative committee made when it called in Baroni to testify about a Port Authority study of traffic on the George Washington Bridge that Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye discredited as mythical when he testified under oath the following month.

The failure of Mastro’s committee to question Baroni and Samson -- who, unlike Kelly, Stepien, and Wildstein, have not invoked the Fifth Amendment in the Bridgegate case -- was particularly crucial. Samson, who is the subject of conflict-of-interest complaints brought before the State Ethics Commission, refused to provide documents or to be interviewed by the Mastro inquiry.

Christie said on January 9 that he was satisfied that Samson, a former New Jersey attorney general who had served as his 2009 campaign counsel, did nothing wrong in Bridgegate, but Wisniewski pointed to two emails indicating that Samson was going to retaliate against Foye, first for ending the lane closures and then for allegedly leaking a critical memo on Bridgegate to the Wall Street Journal just five weeks before Christie’s reelection.

When that Wall Street Journal story broke on October 1, Christie recalled months later on a 101.5 radio show, the governor directed his Chief of Staff Kevin O’Dowd and Chief Counsel Charlie McKenna – both former high-ranking officials in Christie’s U.S. Attorney’s Office -- to investigate the Bridgegate lane closures to see if there was anything to Foye’s allegation that the lane closures might have broken federal and state laws. Their entire investigation apparently consisted of a single phone call the following weekend from McKenna to Baroni, whose explanation that it was a legitimate traffic study was accepted at face value.

Foye’s angry memo alleging criminal wrongdoing and ordering the lanes reopened actually had arrived in the governor’s office two-and-a-half weeks earlier, when Baroni forwarded it to Regina Egea, the director of the governor’s authorities unit whom Christie named in December to succeed O’Dowd as Chief of Staff. Egea forwarded the memo to Nicole Crifo, the authorities unit’s senior counsel, marked “Importance: High.” She called Baroni later that day, and like McKenna, accepted Baroni’s explanation. Apparently, neither she nor Crifo told Christie, O’Dowd, or McKenna of the Foye memo.

The Mastro report concluded that Baroni knew in advance of the planned George Washington Bridge lane closures, but that he did not know the lane closures were designed to punish Sokolich.

The Mastro report discloses that Wildstein told Drewniak at a social dinner on December 5 not only that he had mentioned the George Washington Bridge traffic study to Christie at the 9/11 event in New York, but also that both Kelly and Stepien had “some knowledge” of the traffic study. When Drewniak, who was meeting with O’Dowd, told Christie the following day of his conversation with Wildstein, “Christie said that Wildstein and Baroni ‘had to go,’” the report said. Christie added that “McKenna would set up meetings with Baroni and Wildstein to inform them of their resignations.” Both the Wildstein and Baroni resignations were portrayed as voluntary by the administration.

Shortly after Wildstein’s December 6 resignation, Christie spoke to Michael DuHaime, his chief political consultant, and DuHaime told the governor that Wildstein had told him he would not have implemented the lane closures without approval, and that Kelly and Stepien knew in advance of the lane closures. Stepien told Christie he had told Wildstein to check with the governor’s office, and Kelly denied any involvement.

When Kelly’s email became public, the report said, Christie decided not only to fire Kelly for lying to him, but also to dismiss Stepien, who was serving as consultant to the Republican National Committee and whom Christie had just chosen as the new state Republican chairman, for “the tone and behavior and callous indifference that was displayed” in his emails with Wildstein after the lane closures.

DuHaime, who was dispatched to give Stepien the news, reported that Stepien “was upset to be thrown under the bus, but understood the gravity of the situation.”

Since then, Stepien has joined Kelly in invoking his Fifth Amendment rights, refusing to meet with the Mastro committee and also challenging the right of the Select Committee on Investigation to subpoena potentially incriminating documents at a time when the U.S. Attorney’s Office is conducting a criminal investigation.

Wisniewski has challenged the independence of Mastro’s investigation, pointing out that not only were the firm’s bills paid by the governor’s office, but also that Mastro had previously represented the Port Authority and that he had served as deputy mayor under New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has been Christie’s most outspoken public supporter. In addition, Deborah Wong Yang, a partner in Mastro’s Gibson Dunn & Crutcher law firm, had received a lucrative monitoring contract from Christie when he was serving as U.S. Attorney, and her daughter interned in Christie’s governor’s office.

Christie dismissed the criticism of his ties to the Gibson Dunn law firm, asserting in the interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer that “there’s hardly a law firm in the area I haven’t had interaction with” as U.S. Attorney. “These people have their own personal and professional reputations. They’re not going to whitewash anything for me,” he insisted.

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