Christie Aide Politicking While Working on Taxpayers’ Dime

Matt Katz | June 22, 2016 | Katz on Christie

While collecting a taxpayer-funded salary, a top aide to Gov. Chris Christie discussed rewards for those who endorsed the governor’s 2013 reelection, WNYC has learned.

Three newly revealed emails indicate that Bill Stepien, Christie’s $140,000-a-year deputy chief of staff, strategized with the governor about landing endorsements for his reelection. The emails were sent in early to mid-April in 2013; the state Treasury Department told WNYC on Wednesday that Stepien’s last day was after that, on April 26. From there, Stepien became Christie’s reelection campaign manager.

The governor’s office had previously refused to say when Stepien left the government payroll.

The emails, which were put in court filings last week by defense attorneys in the Bridgegate case, are significant because government employees are forbidden from doing political work on the public’s dime. Earlier documents had likewise shown that the unit in the governor’s office that Stepien ran, the Intergovernmental Affairs office, was working to get Christie reelected.

But the newly-revealed emails are also important because Christie’s tax-funded attorneys, hired in 2014 to conduct an “independent” internal investigation into Bridgegate, claimed that political activity in the governor’s office had only started after Stepien quit.

That conclusion by the Gibson Dunn law firm, which as of last August had billed more than $10 million to taxpayers, fit nicely with Christie’s efforts to distance himself from the scandal. The investigation’s findings, endorsed by the governor himself, was that inappropriate political activity only occurred under the leadership of Stepien’s successor, Bridget Anne Kelly, who was not nearly as close to the governor as Stepien was. Kelly was described by Christie’s attorneys as being emotional after a romantic break-up with Stepien, and therefore not of sound mind when she punished the mayor of Fort Lee by closing lanes to the George Washington Bridge.

Gibson Dunn’s conclusions in the so-called Mastro Report said that the “aberrational” political activity in the governor’s office only occurred “under Kelly’s leadership.” But the emails — which Gibson Dunn likely obtained 2 1/2 years ago — contradict that. It appears that before he joined the reelection campaign, Stepien wooed mayors and even discussed rewarding those who endorsed Christie.

The Mastro Report is also being called into question by attorneys for Kelly and her co-defendant, Bill Baroni, a former Port Authority official. Defense attorneys are expected to argue that the report was riddled with inaccuracies and protected those more responsible for the lane closures.

Kelly, who was found to have penned the infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email, was charged with federal crimes and will stand trial in September. Stepien was not charged, but was fired from Christie’s political team in the wake of Bridgegate. He is now a political consultant for other Republicans in New Jersey.

Government employees are allowed to engage in political activities if they receive approval from an ethics officer and do the work on their own personal time. It is unclear if Stepien received such approval, or if he sent the three emails to Christie during his own time. They were sent before, during and after normal business hours. The indiscretion is not expected to yield an investigation; the new acting Attorney General is Chris Porrino, a Christie appointee who was the governor’s chief counsel after Bridgegate.

An attorney for Stepien, Kevin Marino, did not return an email for comment.

The Stepien-Christie emails deal with endorsements by mayors and unions. Stepien is seen coordinating a meeting for Christie with Democratic and independent mayors who are “targets” for endorsements, and Republican mayors who are “in need of constant maintenance.” Of union endorsements, Stepien writes: “We should discuss how best to reward these guys.”

Stepien notes how the taxpayer-funded Intergovernmental Affairs unit had already put one mayor “in the end zone.” That mayor, in Belleville, ultimately endorsed Christie before his town received $10 million in federal Superstorm Sandy funding, even though Belleville was barely touched by the storm.

Asked about that “end zone” email, Christie told reporters last week that it just indicated that the IGA “did their job really well from a governmental perspective and it was my job to go out and get him to make the endorsement.”

Christie noted that politics always happens in governor’s offices. “Everything that goes on in government is political, and anybody who tells you differently is just not telling you the truth,” he said.

Spokespeople for Christie did not return questions last week from WNYC and POLITICO about when Stepien left the governor’s office. His termination date was only provided to WNYC after a public records request was sent to the state Treasury Department.