For Christie, and His Political Fortunes, Bridgegate Is Far from Over
Is scandal behind governor’s fall from grace with Trump team? Will Trenton Democrats push for impeachment?
- Credit: Lee Hernandez/WNYC.org
The ongoing political fallout from last month’s guilty verdicts in the federal Bridgegate trial continues to dog Gov. Chris Christie.
First, it appears that the verdicts are hurting his propects for a significant post in the White House administration of president-elect Donald Trump. But but the scandal is also causing some tension in Trenton, where Democratic lawmakers are looking to continue to put pressure on the Republican governor.
At least one key legislator, Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), is calling for Christie’s impeachment.
Christie has been bounced from the chairmanship of Trump’s transition team, a position he landed after becoming one of the first figures to publicly endorse the controversial real estate mogul in his bid against Hillary Clinton earlier this summer. It’s unclear whether the move is due to Bridgegate, or the antipathy of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. While U.S. Attorney, Christie prosecuted Kushner’s father, Charles, a major Democratic contributor, for tax evasion and witness tampering. Charles ended up spending a year in jail.
It’s also unclear if Christie will be locked out of any position in the Trump administration or just high-profile posts that require congressional approval.
“It’s a demotion at the end of the day,” said Matt Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University, referring to Christie’s move from chair to vice chair of the transition team. “He was the man in charge, and now he’s not the man in charge.”
In Trenton, too, legislators last week found themselves struggling to move past Bridgegate, while Weinberg called for impeachment proceedings to begin against the embattled governor. Other Democrats said they were angered by the state attorney general’s refusal to appoint a special prosecutor in a separate criminal complaint against Christie, who is expected to appear in Bergen County court over the matter next week.
“During the now completed Bridgegate trial there was considerable testimony under oath that Gov. Chris Christie had knowledge of a conspiracy to misuse government resources to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge,” Weinberg said in a statement last week. “Article
Seven, Section Three of the New Jersey Constitution provides that a Governor may be impeached ‘while in office or for two years thereafter’ for a misdemeanor committed during office. If impeached by the Assembly and convicted by the Senate, a Governor can be removed from office and disqualified ‘to hold and enjoy any public office of honor, profit, or trust in this State.’”
Weinberg has been one of two leading Democrats at the forefront of legislative inquiries into Bridgegate, having served as co-chair on the Select Committee on Investigations that first revealed the lane closings as a potentially politically motivated scheme to punish Fort Lee’s Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse Christie during his 2013 reelection campaign. The other co-chair was Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), the progressive whose very public efforts to get to the bottom of the issue brought him national attention, and who has since announced an exploratory committee for governor in 2017.
The panel’s initial hearings eventually gave way to the federal trial, which found both Kelly and Baroni — as well as a third cooperating witness, former Port Authority appointee and high school friend of Christie’s, David Wildstein — guilty of nine counts of conspiracy, fraud and related charges. Both Weinberg and Wisniewski were regular courtroom fixtures at the trial, and have since sought to use new — and often conflicting — testimony from the convicted and other key witnesses to hold Christie’s feet to the fire.
Among other potentially damning information, both the defense and prosecution claimed Christie knew about the closings while or before they happened — though the Republican himself has repeatedly denied it. The two co-chairs have asked Democratic leadership to reconvene the investigative committee in light of those allegations, while Weinberg last week doubled down not only to call for Christie’s impeachment, but for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Attorney’s Office to release records of meetings between the the two offices and the administration in relation to the Bridgegate investigation.
“Gov. Christie is positioned to accept a high-ranking post in the Trump administration even as the public still does not know whether his testimony to the federal government is consistent with his public statements — repudiated by the government’s own witnesses — about what he knew and when he knew it,” Weinberg said. “If he lied to the federal government, that is a crime. If his remarks to the federal government mirror his own public statements, they are at odds with the testimony under oath of the government's own prosecution witnesses.”
But Weinberg and Wisniewski aren’t the only Democrats in Trenton endeavoring to make sure Bridgegate remains a problem for Christie. In an Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, lawmakers debated confirming the Republican’s nomination of Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir S. Grewal for a five-year term, with Senate Democrats like Nia GIll (D-Bergen) questioning the nominee’s involvement in the ongoing criminal complaint against the governor in north Jersey.
Last month, a Bergen County municipal judge agreed there was enough probable cause to implicate Christie in the lane closing scheme and allow a complaint of official misconduct to move forward, issuing a summons for the governor to appear in court on November 23. Gill and other Democrats have urged Attorney General Christopher Porrino to appoint a special prosecutor in the case, noting the potential conflict of interest posed by a Christie appointee overseeing a complaint against the executive.
Porrino, who previously served as the governor's legal counsel, last week denied that request, saying that both he and Grewal have recused themselves from the case. Grewal confirmed that at the hearing on Thursday, adding that the case is now being handled by John Higgins III, the acting first assistant prosecutor, and Rebecca Ricigliano, Porrino's first assistant attorney general.
“The case is now going to be transferred to first assistant prosecutor and the attorney general’s first assistant,” Gill told Grewal last week. “Both of those people serve at the pleasure — they’re not civil service — they serve at the pleasure of you and your office, and they serve at the pleasure of the attorney general’s office. Those two people do not have the constitutional protection of either you or the attorney general. This is why we need an independent prosecutor even more.”
“The appearance of a conflict needs to be removed as thoroughly as possible so that there are no doubts about the findings of the investigation,” added state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Essex) in his own statement last week, arguing the case should instead be taken up by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. “By definition, most everyone in the state’s law enforcement system has a perceived conflict when a sitting governor is the subject of the investigation.”
Christie, for his part, hasn’t hedged on denying responsibility for the lane closing, continuing to blame it on the work of a few rogue staffers. In his firston the issue following the conclusion of the trial, Christie last week said the verdict had “confirmed” what he said during his January 9 press conference on the scandal in 2014 — namely that the scheme was crafted and carried out by Baroni, Kelly, and Wildstein alone. He also told CBS’s Charlie Rose that he had promptly fired the three after finding out about their involvement, though that isn’t exactly true: While Kelly was fired, Wildstein and Baroni both resigned from their posts for reasons at the time unrelated to the scandal.
Still, Christie was not on trial with his former allies, nor has he ever been charged despite several investigations into the scandal. The lack of a smoking gun — as well as, probably, fatigue from three years of the scandal muddying legislative efforts in Trenton — has convinced many lawmakers of the need to move beyond Bridgegate, regardless of whether Christie serves out the remainder of his term.
At the Judiciary hearing, Republican Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Passaic) hit back against Gill, accusing her of “wasting this committee’s time to make a political statement” and saying he had met privately with the nominee and was not concerned about his integrity. Grewal’s nomination was eventually confirmed, with lawmakers like Weinberg praising the former federal prosecutor’s experience and judgment, and is likely to see final approval during the Senate’s voting session today.
Weinberg’s impeachment efforts have also been met with criticism in the Legislature’s two houses, not just from Republicans but also from members of her own party. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), who would be tasked with beginning the proceedings, said Weinberg’s request was “disappointing” because it was made through a press release and not in person. Likewise, Assembly Majority leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) has disagreed with the maneuver, saying there would not be enough evidence to impeach Christie over the scandal.
“As has been the case all along since the Assembly took the lead and broke open this investigation, we are weighing all potential legislative activity, but considering how any impeachment would involve the Senate, it’s disappointing that Sen. Weinberg made her request through a press release,” Prieto said in a statement.
Republicans too condemned the idea. Christie spokesperson Brian Murray called Weinberg’s move “ridiculous” in a statement, saying it was “shocking that someone who sat in the front row of the courtroom every day could get it so wrong.” Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-Morris), meanwhile, said New Jersey residents are “tired” of Weinberg playing “political games,” adding that lawmakers owe it to their constituents to “get back to work and do the job we were elected to do.”
“If there is some clear cut evidence of wrongdoing, I can guarantee you that the U.S. attorney would be following up on that. But for us now to continue down that path, based on all the time and energy that’s already been put into that, I think it’s a poor use of the time of government,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), referring to Weinberg and Wisniewski’s efforts to reconvene the joint legislative committee.
“I’ve always thought that it was going to be really really difficult for Chris Christie to have much of a future with a Bridgegate verdict,” Hale said. “He had no future without a Trump win, but it still hangs over his head.”