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Analysis: With Bridgegate Panel At Standstill, All Eyes On U.S. Attorney

Fishman denies report that indictments are imminent, as Democrats and Republicans issue dueling reports in Bridgegate investigation

Wisniewski Weinberg
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), cochairman of the Joint Select Committee on Investigation, and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).

With the Legislature’s Select Committee on Investigation bitterly divided along partisan lines and issuing conflicting reports on Bridgegate yesterday, the next -- and most important -- move is up to U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, whose criminal investigation enters its 11th month as Gov. Chris Christie makes his final decision on a 2016 presidential run.

“The U.S. Attorney is the wild card in all of this,” Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute, said of Fishman. The Democratic appointee, whose high-profile investigation has been remarkably free of the leaks that categorized not only the legislative probe but also Christie’s seven-year tenure as U.S. Attorney, yesterday dismissed the most recent press report claiming that indictments in the Bridgegate case were imminent.

Fishman’s probe of the four-day shutdown of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge that snarled traffic in Fort Lee in apparent retaliation for Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich’s refusal to endorse Christie for reelection expanded to include other allegations of misconduct involving the Port Authority. These include Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s charge that she was improperly pressured by Christie administration officials to support a controversial high-rise development represented by Christie ally and then Port Authority Chairman David Samson.

“The shoe that drops at the U.S. Attorney’s Office could change everything. Or nothing at all. If there are only indictments against Bridget Kelly and David Wildstein, that’s bad, but not unexpected,” Murray said, referring to Christie’s fired deputy chief of staff who sent the incriminating “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email and Christie’s Port Authority appointee who carried out the lane closures.

“The governor can still ride that out,” he said. “If a trial occurs early in 2016, that could be a problem or it could come after the nomination. But the smart money would be that this would be just a minor annoyance for Christie lasting a few news cycles.”

Murray drew a distinction between former President Richard Nixon’s criminal cover-up of the illegal break-in at the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate case and what Democrats have repeatedly called Christie’s “curious lack of curiosity” about the Bridgegate case in the four months between the September 2013 lane closures and the January 8 release of the Kelly email.

“The cover-up as far as we know may simply be covering up the knowledge that someone in his office may have been involved in something not right or ethical,” Murray said, “not that someone in his office committed a crime.”

In any case, “this would not be as big a deal if Chris Christie was not a leading presidential candidate,” said Ben Dworkin, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. “The fact that he is means that there is ammunition (in Bridgegate) for his opponents, including those in the Republican Party.”

“Fundamentally, there are still two questions that most people would like to have answered: Why did this happen, and who was involved?” Dworkin said. “I’m not sure the legislative oversight committee has the power to get to those answers. Paul Fishman certainly does, but we’re all waiting on him. It’s like we are all in an airplane that is circling the airport waiting for a runway. We don’t know when we’re going to land.”

In the meantime, both Democrats and Republicans are pushing rival narratives in the battle for national public opinion that is so critical to Christie’s presidential ambitions.

Consequently, it was not surprising that Democrats on the legislative investigative committee voted along party lines yesterday to release a 139-page interim report whose narrative by Reid Schar, the committee’s special counsel, blames Christie administration appointees -- but stops short of blaming the governor himself -- for the Bridgegate lane closures.

If the intent of the interim report was to damage Christie, it seemed to backfire. While the report clearly blames Christie for engendering the politicized atmosphere in his governor’s office, the national media seized upon the report’s finding that “there is no conclusive evidence as to whether Governor Chris Christie was or was not aware of the lane closures either in advance of their implementation or contemporaneously as they were occurring. Nor is there conclusive evidence as to whether Governor Christie did or did not have involvement in implementing or directing the lane closures."

As a result, the national media generally ran stories after the interim report leaked last Thursday proclaiming that the “Democratic-led investigation” had failed to find any evidence of wrongdoing by Christie in Bridgegate -- a conclusion that gave credence to the report commissioned by Christie and issued by attorney Randy Mastro last spring that fully exonerated the governor.

Murray noted that the national media’s conclusion fit into Christie’s narrative that he has been the target of a partisan Democratic probe.

The committee’s four Republicans underscored that narrative yesterday when they issued a scathing 119-page minority report charging Democrats of conducting a political witch hunt designed to bring down Christie, thus calling into question any conclusions the Democratic-led panel might make now or in the future on what Christie knew and when he knew it.

While the Bridgegate lane closures were unlawful abuses of power, the Republican minority report charged that Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) -- “an opportunistic and power-hungry politician” -- also abused his power as committee chairman when he “used those reprehensible lane reassignments as cover, while leading a legislative committee to try to execute a two-pronged political mission: take down Governor Chris Christie, the biggest political threat to state and national Democrats, and in so doing, become the next Democrat gubernatorial candidate.”

The Republicans asserted that “Wisniewski and some of his Select Committee colleagues repeatedly misled the public; manipulated media coverage via false leads, seemingly unlawful leaks and baseless claims; charged taxpayers millions of dollars to promote political fiction; and accomplished nothing meaningful for the public good.”

“Their actions have raised many unanswered potential legal and ethical concerns surrounding apparent conflicts of interest and the use of public resources for political purposes,” citing Wisniewski’s decision to hire Schar’s law firm, which advised Wisniewski and Democratic legislative leaders during the 2011 redistricting process.

“What could have been heralded as an impartial national investigative model, such as the 9/11 Commission, the Democrat-controlled Select Committee was rendered a shiftless, broken political vehicle,” the GOP legislators asserted, noting that Wisniewski rejected their efforts to refocus the probe on the failings of the Port Authority that allowed the GWB lane closures to occur.

Interestingly, the Republican minority report charged “Wisniewski abused the state taxpayers’ credit card to the tune of at least $8.79 million for his failed political pursuit of the spotlight and Governor Chris Christie’s demise.”

However, the breakdown of the bills in the Republican report shows that Schar’s firm, Jenner & Block, billed the state $1,061,392 through November, and the Senate Democrats’ private counsel, Leon Sokol, charged just $34,671.

The overwhelming majority of the costs cited by the Republicans was the $6.52 million tab charged to the state by Mastro’s firm, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, for its legal services to the governor’s office, including its own investigative report that exonerated Christie despite not being able to interview Kelly, Wildstein, and former Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and dismissed Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien, both of whom reportedly had prior knowledge of the Bridgegate lane closures. Another $672,576 consists of legal fees for outside counsel used to represent Christie administration officials ensnared in the Bridgegate hearings, plus $301,003 for outside legal fees spent by the embattled Port Authority.

The remaining $200,000 is the estimated cost of legislative staff time spent on the Bridgegate issue – salary that would have been paid whether there was an investigation or not. Wisniewski defended the work of the Select Committee on Investigation, which grew out of a probe by his Assembly Transportation Committee whose subpoena powers unearthed the incriminating Kelly email that spawned a half-dozen legislative and law enforcement inquiries, including Fishman’s.

“While there is evidence that the Governor was informed of the lane closures while they were in progress, the Committee cannot evaluate the reliability of this evidence as it has yet to hear from the witness -- David Wildstein -- who has claimed to have contemporaneously told the Governor of the closures,” Wisniewski said yesterday, referring to Wildstein’s claim that he told Christie about the lane shutdowns at a 9/11 ceremony in New York City.

“Even, however, if Bridget Kelly and David Wildstein acted alone, they did so with perceived impunity and in an environment, both in the governor’s office and the Port Authority, in which they felt empowered to act as they did, with little regard for public safety risks or the steadily mounting public frustration,” he said.

Wisniewski questioned how Christie could assert during his December 13, 2013, press conference that no one on his senior staff or his reelection campaign had any knowledge of the lane closures when “Stepien had told the Governor that Wildstein had brought the lane closure idea to Stepien in advance and that Stepien had told Wildstein to take it to the governor’s office,” and when Christie’s chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, gave the governor an email before the press conference “indicating that Kelly had at least been aware of the lane closures while they were in effect.”

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the committee’s cochair, asserted that the panel “found through its work that laws were potentially broken. Bridget Kelly’s instruction to Christina Renna to delete an email describing the mayor’s frustrated phone call about the lane closures, to which Kelly replied ‘good,’ may have violated the witness tampering statute in New Jersey.

“Similarly, 12 text messages exchanged between the Governor, and a top administration official, Regina Egea, during the testimony of Port Authority officials before an Assembly committee, were apparently deleted by both parties,” she said. Egea was then director of the governor’s authorities unit and had already been named as O’Dowd’s replacement as chief of staff -- a position she finally assumed last month after O’Dowd’s nomination as attorney general died a quiet death after his testimony before the committee about his supervision of Kelly raised questions about his confirmation.

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