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Opinion: Christie & Co. -- Fanning the Flames of the Bridgegate Scandal

The administration seems more out-of-control than capable of effective spin control or damage control

carl golden
Carl Golden

Is it just me or are the people doing their best to put the Bridgegate scandal behind them instead doing and saying things to keep the story alive?

Consider:

  • The team of attorneys hired by the Christie administration to conduct an internal review to determine if anyone in the governor’s office was involved issued a report that, to no one’s surprise, absolved the governor and his top staff from any responsibility in the closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee last September.

It then went a bridge too far by attacking former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly, who set the lane closings into motion, as emotionally unstable and suggesting that Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who accused the administration of improperly withholding Federal relief funds from her town, was delusional. The resulting uproar over what struck most as gratuitous and sexist in the extreme undermined the report even further.

  • Senate President Steve Sweeney, often an ally of Gov. Chris Christie, told the Star-Ledger editorial board that if a Superior Court judge upheld a challenge to the validity of the legislative investigating committee’s subpoenas, the committee should close up shop. It instantly backfired, forcing Sweeney into a hasty retreat and a total recanting of his comments.

  • The state treasurer told the Assembly Budget Committee he had no idea of the cost to the administration of the review conducted by the outside counsel led by Randy Mastro of the New York City firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher. He was followed by the attorney general who said he, too, was unaware of the cost but expected to learn it in a matter of weeks or months.

  • When the legislative committee decided to seek the documents made available to the outside lawyers’ group, as well as the transcripts of the group’s interviews, it was revealed that no recordings had been made and all that existed were notes and memoranda.

The goal is to help one another douse the flames of controversy. The people involved in these incidents have taken a fireplace bellows to it instead.

The strategy -- such as it is -- seems to be to endure public embarrassment in the interest of obscuring the politically pertinent.

Each revelation has led to an immediate round of news stories, complete with all the background material, ensuring that it will not fade from the public consciousness anytime soon.

The attention given to the scandal and to the governor has increased exponentially in national news outlets, mass circulation magazines, popular blogs, and websites widely read by the political cognoscenti.

While Christie’s decline in the polls has slowed somewhat, they continue to demonstrate serious public misgivings about his honesty and trustworthiness. A clear majority believes he knows more about the lane closures than he has admitted and that the internal investigation report lacks credibility and was a bought-and-paid-for device whose pre-determined mission was to clear him.

While Sweeney’s suggestion that the legislative committee abandon its inquiry was initially viewed as a major blunder, there is ample speculation that it was offered up in an important media setting -- the Star-Ledger editorial board -- as a calculated trial balloon to gauge reaction to removing the Legislature from the inquiry and deferring to the U. S. Attorney who has undertaken an investigation of his own and has convened a grand jury.

Sweeney is, of course, close to South Jersey political power George Norcross whose relationship with Christie is warm as well. Those in the dot-connecting business quickly concluded that Christie turned to Norcross for help and Norcross turned to Sweeney to help undermine the legislative committee’s work.

All involved deny it, naturally, but even giving them the benefit of the doubt, the entire incident reflected poorly yet again on Christie.

In response to the committee’s request for documents and transcripts, Mastro said he would cooperate with the panel and turn over notes and memoranda from his team’s inquiry. Their value, though, is questionable if, as reported, the interviews were not taken under oath and were neither recorded nor officially transcribed.

While the rate of $650 an hour paid to Mastro and his firm is known, the contention of the state treasurer that he was unaware of the overall amount paid while the attorney general said he couldn’t shed any light on the question for weeks or months raised suspicions that the figures were being hidden.

Fairly or not, given the politically charged environment in which the scandal is playing out, skepticism and cynicism have enveloped any new developments and explanations.

The stepped-up activity on the part of the U. S. Attorney, particularly in convening a grand jury and subpoenaing witnesses to testify before it, has given greater momentum to the story. News accounts of witness immunity filled the air briefly. The disclosures that David Wildstein, the Christie-approved staffer at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a central figure in the scandal, and Charles McKenna, who served as chief counsel to the governor, met with the U. S. Attorney set off another frenzied round of speculation.

The response of the administration and its allies all seems so uncoordinated and disjointed, hardly the stuff of which effective damage control is made. When confronting a story that has legs -- as this one most certainly does -- the first priority is to outrun it and get ahead of it or, failing that, to cut it off at the knees. Thus far, the folks involved here seem incapable of either.

One can almost hear the screaming in the background: “Don’t help; just stand there.”

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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