Gov. Chris Christie has become the unlikely personal good luck charm of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who has fronted thousands of dollars to send the New Jersey governor to games.
Christie has been to five games this season, and the Cowboys won every time. He even wears the same orange sweater. But his Cowboys fandom is now stirring up ethical, financial, and political questions.
Last month TV cameras caught Christie in a luxury box in Philadelphia, high-fiving Jones as the Cowboys beat the Philadelphia Eagles. Eagles fans, who dominate in South Jersey, were furious, and they spent much of the game cursing at him from the stands below. A Philadelphia councilman cursed him out on Twitter.
The Cowboys playoff run continued. On Sunday Christie was back on national TV, jumping up and down and awkwardly hugging Jones in the luxury box, which resulted in a firestorm as fans made fun of his weight and for rooting for a nonlocal team. His name was trending on Twitter from coast to coast, and his brother went on a rant on Facebook defending Christie from the haters.
Then things took a more serious turn. The Wall Street Journal revealed that Jones’ Cowboys are part of an ownership group that was selected by Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to operate the new observation deck at One World Trade Center. The building is mostly owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the embattled bistate agency at the center of the Bridgegate scandal. The details of that lease arrangement for this publicly-financed building are being kept secret by the Port Authority.
According to state law, Christie can accept gifts of any kind from people deemed “personal friends,” but he must reimburse for any events he attends courtesy of those who do business before agencies he regulates. Enter Jones, who has provided box seats for the Christies for three games, according to Christie’s spokespeople. He also paid for Christie to fly to Texas for Sunday’s game. Another plane trip was paid for by the state Republican party, because Christie had political business in Texas that same day.
For a fourth Cowboys game at the Meadowlands, Christie was in the governor’s box (he gets 24 seats to any Giants or Jets game, courtesy of the state’s Sports and Exposition Authority).
Who paid for the ticket to the fifth game that Christie attended in Philadelphia? That remains a mystery. Christie’s spokespeople wouldn’t say on Tuesday, although he spent part of the game with George Norcross, the Democratic powerbroker who is considered the most powerful unelected figure in New Jersey. A Norcross spokesman said Christie visited with Norcross before moving on to Jones’ box.
None of the games were listed on Christie’s public schedule. When he went to Maryland for a Washington Redskins game, the governor’s schedule had him in New Jersey that day.
This has all resulted in a Democratic group, American Democracy Legal Fund, filing a complaint with the state Ethics Commission, which is run by a woman who used to work for Christie. She has already defended Christie’s Cowboys trips by saying he
Travel has long been an Achilles’ heel for Christie. He was cited when he was U.S. Attorney for spending exorbitantly on hotel rooms and transportation, exceeding the government rates. He got in trouble in his first term for taking a helicopter ride to his son’s baseball game and then to a dinner with donors from Iowa.
WNYC sued the Christie administration last year just to get clarification on how much taxpayers are spending for his travel. The resulting information was incomplete, because the state police won’t say how much it costs taxpayers to send troopers around the country with him.
Christie spent all or part of 137 days out of state in 2013, and much of that travel was reimbursed by campaigns and the Republican Governors Association. But on Tuesday, a state police spokesman said it would risk Christie’s security if officials revealed whether hotels and meals for his state troopers are reimbursed.
An Advisory Ethics Panel created by a Christie executive order could sort out these issues within the governor’s office and make recommendations about how the governor could handle offers of gifts, like football tickets. But both of the panel’s members resigned months ago. These positions are not supposed to ever be vacant, according to the law. One of panel’s former members, John Degnan, is now chairman of the Port Authority, and the other, Richard Mroz, is president of the Board of Public Utilities.
A Christie spokesman didn’t return an inquiry about the vacancies. On Tuesday night, The Record reported that it had been quietly reconstituted with two Christie allies. There had been no prior announcement about the appointments.
Christie has a lot of travel ahead of him. He’s on the gubernatorial swearing-in circuit these days, visiting governors he helped raise money for last year. Today he’s in Florida, then he’s off to Ohio, Illinois, and South Carolina next week. He’ll be in Maryland and then Iowa — the site of the nation’s first GOP presidential caucus — twice at the end of the month.
The New Jersey Republican party plans to cover part of the costs of these trips. A spokeswoman for the party didn’t say whether it would cover costs like state troopers’ meals and hotel rooms.
Christie told WFAN sports radio that he plans to go to the Cowboys playoff game this Sunday. That’s in Green Bay, WI.
“He’s part of our mojo,” Jones said Tuesday. “I want him there all the way. I’ll tell you, if he’s got enough mojo to pull this thing out, he ought to be looked at as president of the United States.”