Cracks In Christie’s Post-Bridgegate Ethics Reform

Matt Katz | March 25, 2015 | Katz on Christie

One year ago this week, a taxpayer-funded report traced the George Washington Bridge lane closures to Gov. Chris Christie’s office and determined that a series of reforms were needed to make sure nothing like Bridgegate ever happened again.

At the time, Christie said he was “fully embracing” the findings of the Mastro Report, named for attorney Randy Mastro, whom the governor hired to write the report. But a review of post-Bridgegate ethics reforms undertaken by his office shows a string of unfulfilled promises: no new email policy publicly adopted, allies installed in key watchdog roles and an ethics panel effectively disbanded for much of the last year.

At a press conference last March 28 when the report was released, Christie declared: “It has been my resolve from the beginning to learn from this and to do whatever we can to be better — to be a better governor, to be a better staff and to be a better administration.” He added: “We owe that to the people of New Jersey, and that’s what I will attempt to deliver.”

There was one immediate reform. The Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs, where the famous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email originated, was dismantled due to concerns that it had become a political arm of the governor’s office.

The second major recommendation dealt with an issue now dogging Hillary Clinton — email. Christie’s employees did not always treat email as public documents, according to the Mastro Report. One Christie staffer ordered an underling to delete an incriminating email, while another email was illegally withheld from a records request because an employee himself decided which email to make public. The “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email itself was sent from a Gmail account to a Yahoo account.

But a year later, state employees still use personal email accounts for government business, according to emails viewed by WNYC. Christie hasn’t followed through on his pledge to implement either of the Mastro Report’s two recommendations in this area: He has neither strengthened the state’s official email policy nor adopted a rule within the governor’s office mandating that all work-related emails sent to personal accounts be forwarded back to government addresses.

Christie hired an ethics ombudsman, Seton Hall Law School Dean Patrick Hobbs, in part to implement the reforms on email use recommended in the Mastro Report. Hobbs earns $75,600 annually to consult with the governor’s office. He does not have an office in the statehouse, instead, according to the governor’s spokesman, he consults with statehouse employees by phone and email. He has not revised the administration’s communications policy, as a governor’s spokesman said he would do when he was hired last April.

Hobbs refused interview requests about what his new job entails. But through a Christie spokesman, he issued a statement saying that he reviewed guidance about email usage given to all governor’s office employees after Bridgegate. That guidance — which the administration declined to release to WNYC because it is considered legal advice protected by attorney-client privilege — “embraces the recommendations of the [Mastro Report], provides a thorough and clear standard for employees to know that it is their responsibility to conduct state business on state email, with few exceptions, and what state retention policies are.”

“I’m satisfied with this guidance, which is communicated to new employees as well as existing employees on a regular basis, and I don’t believe further review of that policy is needed,” Hobbs wrote.

Christie’s spokesman, Kevin Roberts, acknowledged that there is no published policy restricting government business to state email accounts, as the Mastro Report called for, but he stressed that the confidential guidance means that employees are counseled about “conducting state business on state-issued email accounts.”

He also referred WNYC to a new state communications policy adopted last April, but the only warning it includes about using personal email addresses concerns computer viruses.

Nonetheless, the governor implied on his call-in radio show Monday night that the written policy had in fact changed. “Since the incidents of 2014,” he said, “we have required as a policy in the governor’s office that everyone maintain business on a state email account.”

A spokesman didn’t say whether the guidance provided by Hobbs deals with text messages, which the Mastro Report said poses “a host of legal and practical challenges.” Christie himself continues to do government business via text, as he did Monday when he texted with a cabinet member during his “Ask The Governor” radio show on New Jersey 101.5 radio.

The Mastro Report warned against doing government business via text, stating that doing so presents security issues and “could circumvent” the state’s open records laws. Indeed, several text messages sent by the governor to a top aide during a critical Bridgegate hearing were deleted and have not been recovered, according to Christie’s lawyers.

In recommending that the governor appoint an ethics ombudsman, the Mastro Report also called for the ombudsman to be someone not connected to the governor. This ombudsman should be “a senior statesperson of unquestioned integrity and independence — to serve as a sounding board and resource readily available for receiving complaints within the Governor’s Office.”

Through Christie’s spokesman, Hobbs asserted his independence as ombudsman.

Still, Christie had previously appointed Hobbs to serve on his transition team after his 2009 election. Before that, when Christie was U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, he secured a legal settlement that called for a company to endow a $5 million ethics professorship at Seton Hall. Christie faced questioning about the settlement at a subsequent congressional hearing, because he is an alumnus of Seton Hall Law School.

Hobbs was dean at the time. But Christie said the endowment was not his idea and that he had nothing to do with choosing the school.

As ombudsman, Hobbs’ duties include meeting with state employees, attending ethics trainings and answering ethics questions, said Roberts, the Christie spokesman. He has yet to issue a periodic public report, as called for in the Mastro Report.

Hobbs is assisted by a new chief ethics officer for the governor’s office, Heather Taylor, who makes $115,000 annually. The creation of the position was another recommendation of the Mastro Report. Unlike Hobbs, who works off-site, Taylor has an office in Trenton. She addresses employees’ questions on issues such as outside employment and conflicts of interest, Roberts said. To address issues raised in the Mastro Report, Taylor has so far presented four sessions to the governor’s staff on the ethical guidelines for employees’ political activity.

Despite all these new ethics controls, Christie faced new allegations of ethical failings from political opponents earlier this year when it was revealed that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones spent tens of thousands of dollars to bring him to NFL games around the country.

Christie’s spokespeople said in January that Jones, as a friend of Christie’s, was allowed to give the governor gifts under state policy. But Jones’s company has a lucrative contract — endorsed by Christie in a press release — with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. That prompted several ethics complaints to be filed to the State Ethics Commission, including one from a watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and from a partisan Democratic group.

Those complaints were forwarded to a separate entity known as the governor’s Advisory Ethics Panel. By law, the panel is supposed to advise, investigate or even fine the governor if there’s a violation of the state ethics code.

But Christie effectively disbanded the panel last year after he appointed both of its members to other jobs. One, John Degnan, is now his chairman at the Port Authority. The other, Christie’s close college friend Richard Mroz, was appointed last September to head the Board of Public Utilities.

Asked by WNYC at a press conference that month what would happen to the Advisory Ethics Panel now that he had plucked its only two members for other positions, Christie said it would be “repopulated.”

“They provide me ethics advice so if there are things, issues that I want to go beyond the chief counsel to get advice on, I go to those folks and they give me advice, as the same panel has done for a number of governors before me,” he said.

But Christie didn’t get any advice about accepting free trips for his family to attend Cowboys games, because the panel didn’t exist in its legally mandated form for most of last year.

Only after the Jones controversy, which got national attention, did Christie name new members to the panel.

Among them is Peter Verniero, a former Supreme Court justice, who has been tapped by Christie for four other temporary positions in his administration. In 2009 he chaired Christie’s transition team dealing with the governor’s office – a group on which Hobbs, the ombudsman, also served. And in 2011, he was named the lead lawyer defending a lawsuit over the governor’s cuts to the education budget. Verniero declined to be interviewed.

Christie has appointed other allies to ethics watchdog roles. He has done so at the State Ethics Commission, where his appointment of the chairman stirred a conflict of interest complaint, and the hiring of an executive director prompted controversy after it was revealed she used to work with Christie at his old law firm.

Last month, Christie named another ally to yet another entity, the State Commission of Investigation. Rosemary Iannacone was Christie’s office manager and scheduler dating back to his time as U.S. Attorney, and was one of his closest aides. She was subpoenaed in the Bridgegate affair, and has since retired from the governor’s office. Iannacone will make $35,000 a year in the approximately 10-hour-a-month job investigating political corruption and other matters.

The seat that she fills at the commission was vacated by Hobbs, the Seton Hall dean who is now the governor’s ethics ombudsman.