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Katz on Christie

A regular blog that keeps tabs on the activities and fortunes of our renowned Governor, Chris Christie.
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Christie's Bridgegate Lawyer Is Raising Money For 'Christie 2016'

Matt Katz | December 10, 2015

One of the lawyers who issued a taxpayer-funded report exonerating Gov. Chris Christie in the Bridgegate affair is co-hosting a $2,700-a-person Los Angeles fundraiser for the governor's presidential campaign, even as her firm continues to represent his office in the ongoing case.

Debra Wong Yang has so far billed more hours as part of an internal investigation that Christie commissioned into the lane closures scandal than almost any other attorney at her firm, Gibson Dunn. Yang, a friend of Christie's who has vacationed with his family, personally helped to interview Christie as part of the investigation, which determined that the governor and his top advisers had nothing to do with the scandal.

Christie has called the investigation -- known as the Mastro Report for lead Gibson Dunn attorney Randy Mastro -- "independent."

Gibson Dunn is charging taxpayers $350 an hour, per attorney, for a total of $7.8 million through last April. Work is ongoing; the firm filed court papers on behalf of the governor's office as recently as last month in preparation for the trial of two former Christie aides, scheduled for next April.

On Thursday, the state Attorney General's Office refused to provide WNYC with Gibson Dunn's legal bills for the last seven months despite a state statute that says such expenditures should be provided upon request.

https://media2.wnyc.org/i/800/600/l/80/1/Christie.png The Christie 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles next week is co-hosted by Debra Wong Yang, who helped to conduct a taxpayer-funded Bridgegate investigation that exonerated the governor. (Obtained by The Hollywood Reporter)

Yang has known Christie for more than a decade, from the time when both served as U.S. Attorneys -- Christie in New Jersey, Yang in California. Their families once vacationed together at a game ranch in Texas, and after Yang left her position, she secured a lucrative contract through Christie's U.S. Attorney Office as a corporate monitor for a medical device manufacturer. Yang's daughter interned for Christie in the governor's office and Yang donated $500 to his reelection inaugural committee in 2014, just days before the Bridgegate scandal broke.

On the day of Christie's second inaugural, Yang attended the swearing-in ceremony and then billed the rest of the day to taxpayers as she interviewed witnesses for the Mastro Report.

In 2011, Yang introduced Christie at an event in Manhattan by calling him "as genuine as can be, a salt of the earth person" and "truly the real deal." When Christie took the stage, he described Yang as a "good and dear friend." He then described how they chased a wild pig together at the game ranch in Texas.

It is unclear how much work Yang continues to do for Christie. But her firm will likely be involved for the foreseeable future. The lack of information so far turned over by Yang and her colleagues has become a central part of this phase of the Bridgegate case. Lawyers for the two former Christie appointees who are to be tried are arguing that Gibson Dunn did not conduct a transparent internal investigation, and Gibson Dunn has fought a subpoena to turn over more information.

Defendants Bill Baroni, Christie's former top staff appointee at the Port Authority, and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, are to be tried on federal criminal charges. Baroni's second-in-command, David Wildstein, pleaded guilty and is expected to testify against his former colleagues.

There is no New Jersey law that forbids someone with a state contract from donating money to a federal campaign. But Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the political watchdog Center for Responsive Politics, called Yang's role as both a political fundraiser and contracted government lawyer a conflict of interest.

"If the investigation is still ongoing, she's involved and she's also fundraising for Christie, then there isn't even a pretense of impartiality or independence. Even if it's legal, it certainly isn't ethical," she said. "Taxpayers may or may not expect Christie's hired hands to be thorough investigators, and they may not care, but they're unlikely to want to waste money on a charade."

Federal prosecutors' conclusions on the Bridgegate matter differ from the findings by Yang and her colleagues in the Mastro Report. Gibson Dunn only found Wildstein and Kelly culpable, not Baroni. And most of the Mastro Report focused on unrelated allegations involving a shakedown scheme over Sandy aid in Hoboken. In fact, Gibson Dunn did not interview a single member of the Port Authority staff, the agency that closed the lanes to the George Washington Bridge.

The fundraiser, first reported by The Hollywood Reporter, will be held Wednesday at the Los Angeles home of Steve Cohen, a major Christie financial backer and hedge fund billionaire who has faced legal and tabloid scrutiny for alleged insider trading at his former firm.

Neither Yang nor Mastro answered email requests for comment. Christie's campaign spokeswoman referred to a Mastro statement from 2014 when Yang's role in the matter first arose. Mastro had said that although Yang attended the interviews for the internal investigation, she did not actually pose the questions -- Mastro himself did. He added:

"And we had only one incentive here -- to get to the truth. In our search for the truth, the governor made himself available without counsel to be questioned for as long and as often as we requested. And we will ultimately be judged by whether we got it right. In fact, we had to work even harder to get it right because there are other investigations continuing out there. And on the most important questions, including that the governor knew nothing about this lane realignment beforehand, we are confident we got it right."

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the hourly rate that the state of New Jersey is paying Gibson Dunn.

Matt Katz, New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC
Political reporter Matt Katz is The Christie Tracker at WNYC.org. NJ Spotlight is hosting his blog and running his stories, which can also be heard on WNYC 93.9 FM and 820 AM, as well as New Jersey Public Radio: Trenton 88.1, Sussex 88.5, Netcong 89.3, and Toms River 90.3.
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