Gov. Christie has been answering questions about Bridgegate a lot lately. He continually points to the controversial internal investigation that he commissioned into the lane closures after the scandal broke open 1 1/2 years ago today. The so-called Mastro Report, written last year by lawyers at the Gibson Dunn law firm under the direction of Randy Mastro, also promises to be at the center of the federal Bridgegate trial. Two former Christie appointees have been indicted and a third, David Wildstein, pleaded guilty and is expected to testify against his former colleagues.
Here are four questions related to the Mastro Report that could come into play in both Christie’s pending presidential campaign and November’s Bridgegate trial:
1) Can Christie continue to claim that the federal prosecutors came to the same conclusion as the Mastro Report, even though they didn’t?
On the stump, Christie repeatedly refers to the Mastro Report as evidence that the lawyers he hired — and have so far billed taxpayers nearly $8 million — came to the same truth that federal investigators did.
But the US Attorney’s investigation contradicts the Mastro Report in two significant ways.
First, US Attorney Paul Fishman ascribes a motive: That the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 were intended to cause epic traffic jams in Fort Lee in order to punish the mayor there for not endorsing Christie’s reelection.
The Mastro Report says the opposite. “We can say that the evidence does not establish that the ulterior motive was to target the mayor because he did not endorse Gov. Christie for reelection,” Mastro said after issuing the report last year. “In fact, there’s substantial contrary evidence.”
Second, Mastro only found two people culpable — Wildstein and Bridget Anne Kelly, the former Christie deputy chief of staff. Fishman indicted a third person — Bill Baroni, the top staff appointee at the Port Authority and a former top ally to Christie.
2) What’s romance got to do with it?
The Mastro Report attributes part of the reason for Kelly’s alleged involvement in the conspiracy to her being upset that Christie’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, dumped her after a brief relationship. “Events in Kelly’s personal life may have had some bearing on her subjective motivations and state of mind,” the report said.
But the perception that she was emotional over this break-up comes from just one of the 75 people interviewed by Mastro’s lawyers — a woman friendly with Kelly who worked down the hall in the lieutenant governor’s office. Only one other individual, a confidante of Stepien’s, confirmed the existence of this relationship. Neither Kelly nor Stepien agreed to be interviewed for the Mastro Report.
The suggestion that the Mastro Report went out of its way to put undue blame on Kelly could help her argue in court that she is more of a victim than a perpetrator in this case. In fact, even Christie’s former chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, testified before the Legislature last year that the Mastro Report incorrectly characterized Kelly’s role in the governor’s office. “The Bridget Kelly who I knew…was honest, hard working, forthright — someone who had been in this building for 20 years and interacted with many of the members on this committee and the staff,” said O’Dowd, who was Kelly’s boss.
3) Where are the report’s back-up documents?
Of the hundreds of interviews conducted by Mastro and his team with 75 governmental and political figures, only summaries of those interviews, with few quotes, were released. In addition to O’Dowd’s comments about the report’s mischaracterization of Kelly (see No. 2), another former Christie aide testified that words attributed to her in the Mastro Report were incorrect.
That’s why Michael Critchley, Kelly’s attorney, filed a request with a federal judge in Newark to demand back-up documents from Mastro’s investigation. Critchley questions why there aren’t transcripts or recordings of the interviews — even though, sources say, there were lawyers in those interview rooms typing notes. Critchley notes that state rules on outside counsel mandate keeping such documents. And Mastro’s firm has experience as outside counsel: It previously earned $3.1 million handling a sports betting case for the administration.
Fishman agrees with Critchley. A judge has yet to rule on the request. Regardless, it is unclear if Mastro maintained any documents to turn over.
4) Are Christie’s deleted texts the same things as Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails?
Christie claims complete transparency on Bridgegate. He notes the two-hour press conference he conducted on January 9, 2014, when Kelly’s “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email was released. He also says he voluntarily cooperated with Mastro, whom he hired.
“I turned over my cell phone, I turned over my email, both personal and professional, to all of the investigators who asked for them and said, ‘Whatever you want to look at, look at,'” he said.
This transparency, Christie says, contrasts with the secrecy of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose presidential run is shadowed by allegations that she deleted emails about the Benghazi scandal. Christie told conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt that due to media bias, he faces a greater level of scrutiny about Bridgegate than Clinton does over Benghazi.
“Can you imagine if I had come out and said: ‘I have a private email server that I did business on as governor and that I deleted a bunch of emails and destroyed the server, but don’t worry about it, there was nothing on there that was of any interest to anybody?'” Christie asked, as Hewitt laughed.
The thing is: Only one Christie email and zero Christie texts about Bridgegate have ever been publicly released. And Christie deleted his own texts that may have been related to the scandal. During a key Bridgegate hearing in 2013 he exchanged a dozen with his incoming chief of staff, Regina Egea. Both have said that they deleted the texts, and niether remember what they were about.
At a recent press conference I asked Christie what the difference was between Clinton deleting emails and him deleting texts. He said he routinely deletes text messages because he gets so many. But what Clinton did, he said, was unacceptable.
Ever the student of sports and political strategy, Christie knows the best defense is a good offense. So he went after me.
“To try to equate those two is something only NPR would do,” he said.
The pro-Christie crowd in Belmar, where the press conference was being held, applauded his remarks. And some loudly groaned over yet another Bridgegate question.