U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman’s investigation of alleged corruption, abuse of power, and other crimes in the top levels of state government continues to broaden well beyond its initial roots in the Bridgegate scandal of more than a year ago, though suggestions that the probe is directly targeting Gov. Christie appear to be unwarranted.
Over the weekend Christie’s office made of point of emphasizing he is not a target, after a whistleblower in a potentially related case said he had been interviewed about Christie administration decisions by federal investigators. Last week it was also reported that Fishman had issued new subpoenas for the travel records of David Samson, a Christie associate who resigned as Port Authority chairman after the scandal erupted.
The whistleblower is Bennett Barlyn, a former assistant prosecutor in Hunterdon County who then-Attorney General Paula Dow fired in 2010 after he protested the dismissal of indictments against local officials with ties to the Christie administration.
Barlyn said he was interviewed last week by two federal investigators who asked him about Dow’s decision to withdraw grand jury indictments of Hunterdon County Sheriff Deborah Trout and two of her employees.
“It was just very factually based,” Barlyn said yesterday, describing the interview. “The investigators were well-versed in the underlying details and they had clearly come prepared to ask pointed questions. I provided evidence that I strongly believe corroborates the allegations.”
In May 2010, Hunterdon County Sheriff Deborah Trout, Undersheriff Michael Russo, and former sheriff’s Investigator John Falat Jr. were indicted by a grand jury on a combined 43 counts of official misconduct, including the failure to conduct proper background checks, forcing employees to sign loyalty oaths, and making a false law enforcement badge for Robert Hariri, a prominent Christie donor and CEO at Celgene Cellular Therapeutics.
Dow later installed a deputy attorney general, Dermot O’Grady, to run the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s office and announced a review of the indictment. Her office said it found “legal and factual deficiencies” in the charges and in August a judge agreed to dismiss them. Though Barlyn was not the main prosecutor on the case, he confronted O’Grady, saying the dismissal was corrupt and charging that the attorney general had taken over the prosecutor’s office just to kill the case. Barlyn was subsequently fired and two other prosecutors were forced out.
Barlyn filed a civil suit arguing the indictment was sound and he was wrongfully terminated. In the suit, he noted Russo’s relationship with Hariri and Russo’s comment, as reported in a newspaper, that the governor would “have this whole thing thrown out.” William Courtney, the attorney for Trout, Russo, and Falat in their own suit against the state, said Russo denies making that statement and said Barlyn’s account contains inaccuracies.
Barlyn tried to subpoena the grand jury materials in the Trout case, but the state fought the subpoena and he has so far lost that battle in court. He said yesterday that his suit continues and he is awaiting for the state to provide other, nonprivileged case files from the indictment.
Barlyn also wrote a letter to Fishman last April pointing out his case’s connections to the Port Authority, which is at the center of the Bridgegate investigation. He said the allegations in his civil suit implicate both Dow, who went on to a job at the Port Authority, and Christie’s former chief of staff Richard Bagger, who became an authority commissioner. Fishman initially responded that it was not clear the allegations justified federal investigation but he invited Barlyn to set up an appointment to discuss them, leading to last week’s interview.
The article last week about the interview drew wide attention and was cited in wrapup pieces about Christie’s recent stumbles and image problems as he gears up a potential presidential campaign. In addition to Fishman’s interest in Barlyn, Christie made and then backtracked on a controversial remark about vaccinations, and there were reports on the Samson subpoenas and the governor’s apparent taste for luxury travel at other’s expense.
However, some observers noted that an interview does not necessarily mean an indictment in the works, and that Barlyn never said the investigators indicated they were focusing on the governor himself.
“Certainly I never represented that this investigation is focusing directly on Gov. Christie,” Barlyn said yesterday. “My allegations were always focused at the conduct of the attorney general — but there are strong connections between those people involved in the Hunterdon case and the Christie administration. Those are legitimate leads I would hope would be explored, as to why the attorney general did what she did.”
Fishman’s spokesman went even further and made a point of saying that Christie was not under investigation, at least in relation to Barlyn’s allegations. “Any characterization that we are investigating the governor about this is just not true,” the spokesman told MSNBC on Friday. “[W]e talk to people all the time. It doesn’t mean we’re investigating anybody.” A spokesman for the Republican governor emailed journalists the report from MSNBC, a liberal-leaning news outlet often critical of Christie.
That left Barlyn puzzled and concerned why Fishman would deviate from his usual practice of not releasing information about the direction of his investigations.
“I’m perplexed by the U.S. Attorney’s office comments. They seem ambiguous and almost contradictory. In my experience as a prosecutor, it highly unusual to rule out any individual,” Barlyn said.
While it is unclear whether the U.S. Attorney will ultimately charge anyone in connection with Barlyn’s allegations, Fishman does appear to be assembling a case against Samson. Federal prosecutors reportedly asked the Port Authority for records related to his personal travel and his relationship with United Airlines, Newark airport’s largest carrier. The Port Authority runs the airport.
The Bergen Record reported that during Samson’s tenure United initiated nonstop flights from Newark to an airport in South Carolina near a home Samson often visits for the weekend. United ended the flights last April 1, three days after Samson quit the Port Authority board, the paper reported.
The subpoena also asks about Samson’s votes and his communications with United and its lobbyist Jamie Fox, who became Christie’s transportation commissioner in September, the paper said. United also received a subpoena.
The Port Authority’s relationship with United Airlines, as well as Christie’s use of that relationships, have been under scrutiny before. In 2012 he pushed Port Authority commissioners to include in the agency’s capital plan a $1.5 billion extension of the PATH train that United wants to carry its passengers and workers to Newark airport, even though mass-transit advocates say the Port Authority should focus its resources on more critical projects like new rail tunnels under the Hudson River.
United reportedly returned the favor by adding flights from Houston and Chicago to the poorly served Atlantic City airport, as part of an effort to boost visits to the struggling casino resort. United denied any quid pro quo, and at any rate canceled the flights after just eight months, citing insufficient passenger interest.