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Opinion: For U.S. Attorney’s Bridgegate Report, Timing of Release May Be Everything

With ‘State of State’ address, budget, and possible bid for GOP nomination looming, Christie has to wonder what’s in the report and when it will hit

carl golden
Carl Golden

Now that the legislative committee investigating the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge has dropped the first shoe (more like a slipper, actually), anticipate even more intense speculation -- cloaked as gospel handed down from unimpeachable sources -- over the U.S. Attorney’s office review of the episode.

It’s a near certainty that U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman will announce the results of his probe at some point in the first few months of 2015. While he’s already spent more time than he would have liked swatting away published and broadcast reports about possible indictments, Fishman will face heightened focus now that his investigation is the only game in town.

In pursuing what has become the dominant political story of the past year and a half, reporters are not about to be dissuaded from continuing to pressure Fishman, even though they know full well he’ll refuse to respond with anything more than a "no comment" or a suggestion that the speculative reports are in error.

Unlike the public nature of the legislative committee’s activities -- public hearings, release of thousands of pages of documents, willingness of committee members to speak to reporters, and so forth -- Fishman’s office conducts its investigations in private, largely without leaks to the media, and adheres to its timetable regardless of outside pressures.

Assuming, as most do, that Fishman’s findings will be released in early 2015, it tees up an intriguing confluence of events.

The new legislative session convenes in January, faced with dealing with two overwhelming and immediate issues: how to address the multibillion dollar shortfall in the public pension system and how to rescue the Transportation Trust Fund from impending bankruptcy.

Gov. Chris Christie will deliver his State of the State message the second week of January and his administration’s fiscal 2016 budget approximately a month later.

While these fiscal and policy issues would normally draw most of the attention and preoccupy the Legislature, hovering over them will be the governor’s stated intention to reveal plans for his future in politics -- an announcement of whether he will seek the Republican nomination for president in 2016.

In the meantime, Fishman will move ahead at his own pace and, while he will continue to resist allowing political considerations to intrude, he is acutely aware of the volatility in whatever his findings may be.

The timing of his announcement won’t be guided by whatever decision Christie reaches, but at the same time, Fishman is not about to lob a political hand grenade in the form of indictments of gubernatorial staffers or close associates into Christie for President headquarters, should there be one.

His findings will also impact heavily the governor’s effectiveness in securing legislative support for his agenda. Depending on how far up the chain of command any possible indictments may reach, Christie could be perceived as badly weakened, emboldening Democrats to gin up their opposition to his program.

If no indictments are issued or involve only minor players in the bridge drama, Christie will suffer some degree of embarrassment, but his hand will be strengthened, both as governor and as a potential national candidate.

The governor’s position since the outset of the lane closing uproar has been that he knew nothing of the plan in advance, was not involved in devising or implementing it, accepted representations that it was a part of a legitimate traffic study, and, upon learning of the involvement of members of his staff, acted decisively to cut them loose.

While the legislative committee report was unable to unequivocally dispute Christie’s assertions, declaring that it found no evidence directly linking him to the scheme, it also emphasized that because it lacked access to key figures in the politically motivated plot, there remained a number of questions about his involvement.

Not surprisingly, Christie’s supporters immediately claimed he had been vindicated -- and, by a partisan committee of the Legislature, no less -- while his critics insisted that the governor bore responsibility for fostering an atmosphere in which political retribution was inflicted and celebrated, that he was aware of it, and, when the narrative unraveled, knew of efforts to cover up official misbehavior.

Neither side is entirely correct. The committee was unable, for a variety of reasons, to prove definitively and without reservation that Christie was or was not involved at some point.

The committee’s findings were not surprising. In addition to its inability to question witnesses directly involved in the lane closures, the committee’s Democratic members were unable to shake the foundations of the consistent narrative of those governor’s office personnel it could question.

To a person, those witnesses disclaimed any advance knowledge of the closures and expressed their shock and astonishment when it was revealed that a deputy chief of staff and an official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had concocted the scheme as punishment for the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee by creating a monumental four-day traffic jam in his community.

The episode was blamed on two rogue staffers, acting on their own without the knowledge of their superiors. A handful of witnesses conceded the matter could have been taken more seriously than it was as it unfolded, but that they were under the impression it was being dealt with by others.

There were some discrepancies in their stories, some conflicts in testimony, along with hints of wrongful destruction of text messages between staff and the governor, but none sufficient to undermine the narrative’s basic elements to the point of collapse.

While the committee’s Republican members repeated their criticisms of the report, the reaction of Essex County statee Sen. Kevin O’Toole struck many as an over the top.

O’Toole issued a blistering critique of the Democratic majority and a jaw-dropping, brutally personal attack on committee cochair Assemblyman John Wisniewski. O’Toole’s tirade was not a heat-of-the-moment response; rather, it was developed several days in advance of the report’s release and thus a deliberate, calculated assault on Wisniewski and his perceived motives in chairing the investigation.

Why O’Toole went as far as he did is unclear, but some speculated that the personal nature of his comments was designed to give Wisniewski a preview of what awaited should the Democrat -- as has been rumored -- choose to run for governor in 2017.

The committee may have dropped its shoe (or slipper), but it is Fishman to whom people will now turn for his decision. And Fishman has a seven-league boot.

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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