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Mastro ‘Exoneration’ Lays Out Christie Presidential Comeback Strategy

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Bridgegate be damned.

Armed with a report from his $650-an-hour taxpayer-funded lawyer clearing him of all wrongdoing, Gov. Chris Christie unapologetically pushed back into the presidential race yesterday with a televised interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer in which he disclaimed responsibility for the “inexplicably stupid things” his appointees did when they blocked traffic heading into the George Washington Bridge.

With the release of lawyer Randy Mastro’s internal inquiry giving him an occasion to break 11 weeks of virtual media silence, Christie said Bridgegate hasn’t ended his 2016 presidential hopes, nor would it change his outsized personality.

“I am who I am, and for some people, they love it. I will tell you when I travel around New Jersey, that’s the thing they love the most. I think they love me in Iowa, too,” Christie declared in his first TV interview since the Bridgegate scandal broke, referring to the first presidential caucus state. “I’ve been there a lot. I think they love me there too,” he reiterated, adding that Bridgegate would not be a factor when he makes a final decision on a presidential run a year from now.

Iowa and other key battleground states are not far from Christie’s mind: The release of the Mastro report came just two days before Christie heads off to Las Vegas for a pivotal meeting with Sheldon Adelson, the Republican mogul who pumped $150 million into a vain effort to oust Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012, Monmouth University political scientist Patrick Murray noted.

“This report doesn’t move the needle in New Jersey, but it isn’t intended to,” Murray said. “The real audience is the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association. Four months ago, the door was closed to any other moderate except Chris Christie. Now you have Jeb Bush and others looking to get in.

“Christie needs to get this cloud out from over his head. He knows the legislative investigation will drag on for months, the U.S. Attorney’s investigation will drag on. What the Mastro report does is it gives him the opportunity to say to the big donors, ‘Whatever comes out in the end, I won’t be implicated.’ It gives him the opportunity to move forward with Sheldon Adelson. It looks like the taxpayers spent a million dollars to help Chris Christie’s presidential campaign,” Murray concluded.

Rush to Judgment

Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), cochair of the Legislature’s Select Committee on Investigation, dismissed the Mastro report as “a rush to judgment to come to a conclusion to give the governor a talking point so he can put all this behind him.”

Mastro’s report concluded that Bridgegate was entirely the work of fired Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly and Port Authority political operative David Wildstein, that Christie and his top staff had no advance knowledge of the lane closures and had no reason to doubt that they were part of a legitimate traffic study, and that Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s charge that administration officials withheld Sandy aid because she refused to back a stalled development was “demonstrably false.”

Wisniewski, however, noted that Mastro’s investigation “vindicated” Christie despite his inability to interview key figures in either the Bridgegate or Hoboken case, and without interviewing anyone under oath.

Wisniewski noted that Mastro’s report “reads more like a novel than a work of fact,” and Murray said “it doesn’t read like an independent investigation, but like a brief for the defense that provides all sorts of extraneous information like a lawyer making a case to a jury.”

Making his case to the court of public opinion, Mastro portrayed Bridget Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff who issued the infamous “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email, as an emotional woman whose “subjective motivations and state of mind” at the time of Bridgegate were a result of the decision by her “benefactor” Bill Stepien, who had left to run Christie’s reelection campaign, to end their “personal relationship.”

Kelly, who has four children, and Stepien were both single at the time, and Wisniewski attacked the disclosure as “irrelevant,” “bordering on hearsay,” and a “wholly gratuitous effort to add a salacious element” to the report.

Similarly, Mastro attacked the credibility of David Wildstein, Christie’s top political lieutenant at the Port Authority who told administration officials he came up with the idea for the George Washington Bridge lane closures, as an out-of-control political operative who came up with “50 crazy ideas a week,” as Stepien put it.

Undermining Wildstein’s credibility as a witness is critical because Wildstein has sought immunity, and because the most important new nugget of information in the report is the fact that Wildstein told Christie’s press secretary, Michael Drewniak, in December that he told the governor about the lane closures on September 11 -- the third day of the Bridgegate traffic jam -- when he came to New York for 9/11 ceremonies at the World Trade Center site. Christie also downplayed his relationship with Wildstein in the Diane Sawyer interview on ABC, asserting that “David was one of hundreds of people I spoke to that day. I’ll tell you what he didn’t say was, ‘Hey, governor, I’m closing down lanes at the George Washington Bridge to stick it to some mayor.’ I would remember that.”

Mastro’s report accepts Christie’s denial of any discussion with Wildstein and the governor’s insistence that he had no reason to believe that the lane closures were anything but a legitimate traffic study until Wildstein’s copy of Kelly’s email hit newspaper websites on January 8. “Gov. Christie’s account of these events rings true,” Mastro’s report proclaims. “It is corroborated by many witnesses, and he has conducted himself at every turn as someone who has nothing to hide.” But that’s not how Wisniewski and his Joint Committee on Investigation cochair, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), see it.

A Lack of Objectivity

“This review has deficiencies that raise questions about its lack of objectivity and thoroughness,” Wisniewski said. “The idea that Bridget Kelly and David Wildstein by themselves concocted the lane closure is frankly hard to believe,” he said, adding that “it’s very difficult to determine who’s telling the truth when you don’t hear from both sides.”

Mastro exonerated Christie and his top staffers of all wrongdoing despite not being able to interview six principal figures involved in Bridgegate and its coverup: Kelly; Stepien; Wildstein; Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and Chairman David Samson, who both tried to suppress public disclosure of the reasons for the lane closings; and Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, whose refusal to endorse Christie for reelection is believed to be the reason for the lane closures.

The Mastro report also concluded that Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegations that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and other administration officials threatened to withhold Sandy aid unless she supported a stalled high-rise development represented by Samson “are unsubstantiated and, in material respects, demonstrably false. Whatever subjective perceptions she may have do not match objective reality.” As in Bridgegate, Mastro’s team reached its conclusions even though it did not get to interview Zimmer or the various Hoboken officials she told about the threats.

“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," Zimmer said in a statement. “This report only reinforces the soundness of the decision I made not to cooperate with Mr. Mastro’s so-called investigation. To do so would only have leant credibility to an effort that, unfortunately for the taxpayers of New Jersey, has no credibility or legitimacy whatsoever.”

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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