Christie’s Mastro Mistake: Report Backfires Politically, Legally
Memos bolster Zimmer allegations, provide roadmap for investigators, undermine credibility of Mastro report
What was Gov. Chris Christie thinking?
Hiring Randy Mastro’s team of lawyers to conduct an internal investigation into the Bridgegate scandal gave Christie a report exonerating him of all wrongdoing. He used it last month to restart hisand hold onto his chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association.
that were conducted also gave Christie’s lawyers a chance to grill potential witnesses before they are called in by the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the Legislature’s Select Committee on Investigation, which could have a chilling effect on their testimony if they worry that it might be different from what they told the Mastro team.
However, polls show that most New Jerseyans regard the Mastro report as a “whitewash.” The inquiry verified that the governor’s office punished mayors who did not support Christie, and that a staff filled with former federal prosecutors failed to properly investigate Bridgegate. Most important, interview memos released Monday showed that the Mastro investigation ignored evidence that bolstered Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s claim that she was threatened with the loss of Sandy aid, and provided investigators with new witnesses to interview and questions to ask.
Overall, experts said, the Mastro report is proving to be a political, legal and public relations nightmare for Christie, who should have known better than to authorize such an inquiry after serving seven years as U.S. Attorney.
“It seemed crazy to me to do what they did,” Robert Del Tufo, a former New Jersey Attorney General and U.S. Attorney, said of Christie’s decision to commission an internal investigation. “They spent over a million dollars of taxpayer money. It’s unusual in an internal investigation not to take down transcripts of what people said, and presumably they just summarized things so they could put a slant on what people said.
“The purpose was for Mastro to say the governor didn’t do anything wrong. But regardless of the legalities, they must have known there would be a demand for the underlying documents. To refuse to produce them would be a public relations nightmare,” Del Tufo said. Considering the legal and political complications, he said, “I don’t know if I would have done the report in the first place.”
The Mastro report and theestablished for the first time that Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable discussed both the controversial Rockefeller Group high-rise project and Sandy aid with Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer at the time and place she said they did -- a fact that probably would not have come out until after the U.S. Attorney’s Office finished its investigation a year from now, or perhaps not at all.
Interview memos with Constable, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, and other officials contained numerous important details that they left out of their vehement public denunciations of Zimmer’s allegations in January, bolstering the credibility of Zimmer’s story that therepresented by .
The Mastro report’s omission of those details and refusal to consider interpretations of the evidence that supported Zimmer’s story raised additional questions about the impartiality of the internal investigation.
Reward and Punishment
The memos provided additional evidence that the governor’s office rewarded and punished mayors based on their support for Christie’s reelection, showing that the George Washington Bridge lane closures may not have been an aberration.
The memos showed that Christie was fully aware that Bridgegate posed a serious threat to his presidential hopes a month before Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly’s “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email became public.
Finally, the memos provided a roadmap for federal and state investigators to follow, including new leads and critical witnesses who were not among the 28 officials from the Christie administration, reelection campaign, and Port Authority whose documents were subpoenaed by the Select Committee on Investigation at the end of January.
“The Mastro report raised more questions than it answered about what is going on in the Christie administration,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, noted. “Now, the release of the memos has raised even more questions, including questions about the credibility of the Mastro report itself.”
Murray said he could not imagine what Christie and his top advisers were thinking when they settled on their current legal and political strategy. “Every time they put something out, they undercut their credibility,” he said. “Everything they do provides fodder that keeps this investigation alive and keeps this story alive. The report was overly protective of the governor, and now everyone is looking through the memos to see what the report left out. Nothing gets settled, everything looks worse.”
Ashowed that 56 percent of New Jerseyans regarded the report as a “whitewash” and only 36 percent believed it to be a “legitimate investigation.” Even more ominously, 65 percent of voters knew of the Hoboken case, and 57 percent of that group believe Zimmer’s allegation that the Christie administration improperly withheld Sandy aid from her city because she refused to support the Rockefeller Group development.
Murray's Monmouth Poll released April 2 found that voters who knew of the Mastro report believed by a 52-30 margin that the report was done to help Christie's reputation, and Murray said he expected to see those numbers worsen in his next poll. Murray said he expected to see similar results in his next Monmouth Poll. “It will be negative. This is not going to be positive,” Murray stated emphatically, asserting that the controversy over the Mastro report clearly resonated with voters. “The question now with Christie is, ‘Have we hit a floor where a certain percentage of people will defend him no matter what, and everyone else will attack him?’”
The decision by the Mastro team not to place the 75 interviewees from the governor’s office and reelection campaign under oath, andof their interviews, limited their usefulness to investigators.
But it is unclear whether Christie and Mastro expected to have to surrender the interview memos written by Mastro’s team of lawyers from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher when Mastro issued his exculpatory report that read more like a defense brief than an investigative report.