Bridgegate Panel To Begin Calling Witnesses Next Month

Mark J. Magyar | April 15, 2014 | Politics
Wisniewski blasts participation of Christie friend in governor’s interview, release of Mastro memos raises more issues

Credit: NJTV
Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski
After receiving 75 interview memos compiled by the governor’s internal investigation team, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), cochairman of the Legislature’s Select Committee on Investigation, said yesterday his panel would begin calling witnesses next month to testify in the Bridgegate scandal.

“We’re looking at a May timetable to start bringing in witnesses,” said Wisniewski, who sharply questioned the integrity of the report by Randy Mastro’s Gibson Dunn & Crutcher law firm that exonerated Gov. Chris Christie and his top aides of all wrongdoing in the Bridgegate and Hoboken cases.

Wisniewski said he was shocked that one of the three Gibson Dunn lawyers who sat in on the Christie interviews was Debra Wong Yang, who not only is such a close friend of the governor that their families have vacationed together, but who also received a lucrative monitoring contract from Christie when he was serving as U.S. Attorney. “It’s hard to imagine how she could be truly objective being indebted to the man,” Wisniewski said incredulously.

Wisniewski said Gibson Dunn lawyers confirmed that there were no tapes or transcripts of the 75 interviews the firm conducted, and characterized the interview memos compiled by Mastro’s team of lawyers as “the definition of hearsay” because there is no way of knowing if the descriptions of the interviews are accurate or if important information was left out.

“It really runs to the fundamental question of what was Gibson Dunn’s mission. If you are a defense attorney defending someone and accepting their actions, then the generally accepted rule of thumb is that you don’t tape the interview,” said Wisniewski, who is a lawyer.

“But this was represented as a ‘no-holds-barred’ examination of the governor’s office,” he said. “If so, everything that was said should be preserved so that the committee and ordinary citizens can decide for themselves if what was said sounded reasonable. It seems like the goal of the Mastro report was to create a narrative that exculpated the governor’s office and redefined the facts.”

Seeking to revive his flagging 2016 presidential aspirations, Christie has been telling GOP audiences that the Mastro investigation exonerated him and his current aides of any wrongdoing in the politically motivated closure of toll lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee. It also, according to Christie, demonstrated that Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegation that top administration officials threatened to withhold Sandy aid unless she supported a high-rise development favored by Christie was “demonstrably false.”

A Quinnipiac Poll showed that most New Jerseyans believe that the Mastro report, which was commissioned by the governor’s office at a cost of at least $1 million to taxpayers, was a “whitewash.”

Mastro did not interview the five key figures at the center of the Bridgegate scandal who have been fired or resigned under fire — Christie deputy of staff Bridget Kelly, Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien, and Christie’s top three Port Authority appointees, David Samson, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein. Zimmer and Fort Lee Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich, the alleged target of the GWB lane closures because of his refusal to endorse Christie for reelection, declined to be interviewed.

Nevertheless, the 75 interviews released yesterday provide important insights into both the Bridgegate and Hoboken cases, and will undoubtedly raise further questions about the impartiality and rigor of the Mastro report by showing what the legal team hired by the governor’s office chose to leave out of its original 343-page document:

  • The Mastro team glossed over evidence of improper political activity by the governor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs (IGA) under Kelly, which not only worked to collect endorsements for Christie, but cleared important decisions with the governor’s reelection campaign under Stepien, according to an interview with Richard Rebisz, IGA’s Sandy director for 11 North and Central Jersey towns including Hoboken.
  • The interview with Christie showed that he knew in December that “he had to clean up the mess” from the Bridgegate scandal even while he continued to defend the lane closures as a legitimate traffic study, and that Christie ordered Chief of Staff Kevin O’Dowd and Chief Counsel Charlie McKenna to demand Baroni’s immediate resignation, then held a press conference the following day at which he defended Baroni publicly against allegations of wrongdoing.
  • Christie said publicly that he ordered O’Dowd and McKenna to investigate Bridgegate after the Wall Street Journal published Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye’s memo on October 1 charging that the lane closures violated state and federal law. Further, the Mastro report said that McKenna questioned Baroni and was satisfied that the lane closures were part of a legitimate traffic study. But McKenna said in his interview that he did not talk to Baroni until almost seven weeks later when he was prepping him to testify before the Assembly Transportation Committee.
  • The Mastro report went to great lengths to discredit Zimmer’s claim that Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable pressured her to support the Rockefeller Group development before a Sandy forum at Monmouth University. But the report failed to mention that Constable himself told interviewers that Zimmer mentioned the Rockefeller project while they were sitting on stage together, and that he offered to set up a meeting with top state officials to discuss development in Hoboken.
  • Rebisz, whose comments are not cited in the Mastro report, provides perhaps the most important insights in the 75 interview memoranda made public yesterday. His perspective fills a critical void because Stepien, Christie’s 2009 campaign manager who shaped the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs into the political arm of the governor’s office, and his protégé and successor, Kelly, last week obtained a ruling from Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson upholding their Fifth Amendment right to refuse to cooperate with the Joint Committee on Investigation.


    In fact, no one who worked with or spent more time with all of the key figures in the Bridgegate and Hoboken cases than Rebisz, a complete unknown until stories about the Mastro interview memos started showing up on Google yesterday afternoon. It is the omnipresent Rebisz who connects the dots in Bridgegate and the Hoboken case.

    Rebisz worked with Stepien and Christie political consultant Michael DuHaime on the unsuccessful GOP presidential campaign of Rudy Giuliani, Mastro’s political mentor. He worked as legislative liaison under Stepien and with Kelly in the first months of the Christie administration before losing his job after clashing with Kelly.

    After working on an unsuccessful New York U.S. Senate race, Wildstein hired Rebisz at the Port Authority, where he spent two years working closely with Baroni while serving as a liaison and doling out largesse to local mayors. He helped get handheld crank radios and shuttle buses for Fort Lee’s Mayor Sokolich, who told him that “he knew to only ask the Port Authority for one thing a year,” Rebisz said.

    Wildstein and Stepien had been good friends since they had worked together on Bob Franks’ U.S. Senate campaign in 2000 — before Wildstein became the anonymous blogger Wally Edge on what became the website. Rebisz said Wildstein would call “Trenton,” meaning Stepien, when he needed the governor’s office to sign off on something important. It was during that time that Wildstein put together a secret working group at the Port Authority to plan the campaign for the massive 2011 toll hike, but Rebisz does not refer to it.

    Early in 2013, Stepien recruited Rebisz to rejoin the governor’s office as Sandy regional director for 11 Bergen, Hudson, and Middlesex municipalities that had been flooded in the superstorm. It is in that capacity that Rebisz, along with other senior state officials, meets with Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer in late January and mid-March to discuss flood mitigation issues.

    And it is Rebisz who plans Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno’s tour of the Hoboken Shop-Rite reopening on May 13 that ends with a tense meeting in the parking lot during which Zimmer contends Guadagno threatened to hold up Sandy aid for Hoboken unless she agreed to support a development for the Rockefeller Group that was represented by Samson’s law firm and Christie reportedly wanted built.

    While he worked for Kelly’s deputy, Christine Genovese Renna, “Rebisz assumed Kelly’s decisions and orders were coming from Stepien,” the report said. “When Stepien left the governor’s office to work on the governor’s reelection campaign, Rebisz recalled that Kelly would say that she had to check with “Bridgewater” — meaning the campaign or Stepien — before approving certain things.”

    Rebisz also attested to the politics of retribution against those who failed to come through with expected endorsements of Christie’s reelection that pervaded Christie’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs — an attitude that led the governor’s office to have cabinet-level officials cancel a planned day of high-level meetings with Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and is believed to be the impetus for the GWB lane closures to punish Sokolich.

    “When Rebisz was asked whether he had any conversations with Mayor Zimmer regarding her decision not to endorse Gov. Christie, Rebisz responded no, but that at some point, in or around Labor Day 2013, Renna told him not to bend over backwards for Mayor Zimmer, which Rebisz explained meant that he should not out of his way to help her, and that Mayor Zimmer wasn’t going to endorse the governor,” the report said.

    Rebisz said that he continued to treat Zimmer the same, although Kelly — with authorization from Christie — specifically told Zimmer not to show up at a Christie event that fall.

    The Mastro report asserted that Christie’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs “functioned very effectively during the first three years of the governor’s first term, both in terms of responsiveness and nonpartisanship” and alluded only obliquely to “aberrational behavior at Kelly’s direction” during the 2013 reelection year.

    However, Renna’s interview made it clear that it was Stepien, who had headed the office since 2010, who created the list of 100 targeted mayors to cultivate for support long before the 2013 election and expanded that list to 117 after Sandy.

    Renna reported that Intergovernmental Affairs “staff would receive mandatory directives along the lines of ‘Do not rush to return this mayor’s phone call. Sometimes IGA staff received a directive along the lines of ‘no need to call to check in’ with a local elected official, which was enough to send a message to the local elected official.”

    The influence of the Intergovernmental Affairs office extended to all departments of state government. In fact, Constable “recalled being told to clear meetings with elected officials” with Kelly’s office, and was told specifically not to meet with Fulop.

    Mastro’s report is silent on how Stepien and Kelly managed to run such a far-reaching political operation out of the governor’s office just 40 feet from where O’Dowd and McKenna sat on either side of Christie’s personal office without higher-ups being fully aware of their activities, or indeed whether they regarded it as a problem.

    Just when Christie regarded Bridgegate as a problem is also a matter of some confusion in the Mastro report and the interview memoranda.

    The McKenna interview inexplicably says nothing about McKenna speaking to Baroni in early October when Christie asked him and O’Dowd to look into Foye’s allegations that laws had been broken in Bridgegate. Baroni said in an email to Wildstein that he received a phone call from McKenna that weekend, O’Dowd recalled that McKenna spoke to Baroni, and Christie thought he remembered McKenna telling him that he had spoken to Baroni and was satisfied that the lane closures were part of a legitimate traffic study.

    What is clear, however, is that Christie, who had been asked about Bridgegate during a gubernatorial debate with Democrat Barbara Buono, let his senior staff know at a specially called December 13, 2013, meeting that Bridgegate represented a serious problem, especially now that he was the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.


    “The governor walked in, slammed the door, and stood the whole time,” according to the memo on the Christie interviews. “He was agitated and disappointed. He recalled saying ‘this is a mess, and now I have to clean it up.’ He recalled saying that he hoped everyone enjoyed their 38-day vacation, and was pleased with themselves over the 60-percent victory and the TIME magazine cover, but that it was time to get back to work. He said that ‘the spotlight can turn to a searchlight real quick.’”

    Christie had already been told by DuHaime and press secretary Michael Drewniak that Wildstein had told them that both Stepien and Kelly knew of the George Washington Bridge lane closures, but both denied it in face-to-face meetings, Stepien with Christie and Kelly with O’Dowd.

    Later that day, Christie announced at a press conference that Baroni had resigned, but did not reveal that he had sent O’Dowd and McKenna to demand his immediate resignation.

    Constable’s interview was consistent in his assertion that he never threatened to withhold Sandy aid from Hoboken if Zimmer did not support the Rockefeller Group project represented by Samson. Zimmer said Constable relayed the same threat at a Monmouth University forum on May 16 that Guadagno had made at their May 13 meeting after the Hoboken Shop-Rite opening.

    The Mastro report went to great lengths to make that point in a nine-page section that included analysis of Constable’s and Zimmer’s expressions in 11 freeze-frame photos and an interview with Belmar Democratic Mayor Matt Doherty, who was seated on the other side of Zimmer and said he heard no threat.

    What the Mastro report inexplicably omitted was Constable’s own testimony that the Rockefeller Group project apparently was raised by Zimmer and discussed.

    “At some point, Constable recalled that Mayor Zimmer said something about moving forward with the
    Rockefeller project,” the Constable interview transcript noted. “Constable believed she used the word Rockefeller, but was not sure. In response, Constable recalled generally saying something to the effect that he did not think she was in favor of commercial development. Constable recalled generally that Mayor Zimmer responded that she was in favor of commercial development in Hoboken.”

    “Constable recalled that he offered to set up a meeting with Tony Marchetta, the executive director of the NJ Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, and Michele Brown, the head of the Economic Development Authority, to discuss commercial development in Hoboken. Mayor Zimmer replied something along the lines of that would be great,” the memo noted.

    The substance of this conversation, which never made the Mastro report, followed just three days after Zimmer’s tense talk with Guadagno ended with the lieutenant-governor getting in her car and saying that Zimmer was “not playing ball.”

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