Gov. Chris Christie took a major political and legal gamble with his decision to ask Randy Mastro and a team of Gibbon Dunn lawyers to conduct an internal inquiry into the Bridgegate and Hoboken allegations in the face of a pair of ongoing probes by a federal grand jury and a legislative committee armed with subpoena power.
Politically, there is no question that the embattled Christie needed the controversialexonerating him and his top aides of any wrongdoing in Bridgegate and attacking Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s veracity. The release of the report revived his 2016 presidential hopes, protected his chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association, reinvigorated his governorship, and rallied Republican legislators.
Christie’s ebullient personality and forceful tell-it-like-it-is rhetorical style are his greatest political assets. He needed to confront the press and the public if he wanted to stop the continuing skid in his popularity and credibility ratings that followed the January 8 release of Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly’s explosiveand his 10-week self-imposed bunker strategy.
But permitting Mastro’s lawyers to interview Christie and his top aides was a double-edged sword.
First, it created a body of direct testimony that theand the federal grand jury panel investigating the Bridgegate and Hoboken cases might have taken months to compile, but can now subpoena. The revelation that a federal grand jury has been impaneled for 18 months indicates that U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman believes federal laws may have been broken.
Further, the grand jury’s interview of Christie press secretary Michael Drewniak Friday shows that the U.S. Attorney’s investigation has broadened from its initial focus on Zimmer’s allegations to include Bridgegate because Drewniak has not been mentioned in the Zimmer case. While Zimmer’s lawyer said Drewniak is a witness and not a target, Drewniak’s direct involvement in Bridgegate media strategy from the very beginning may also signal that the grand jury is focusing on whether there was a coverup of the reasons for George Washington Bridge lane closures.
Second, the Mastro team’s interviews with Christie and his top aides make it harder for the Christie administration to invoke executive privilege to refuse to provide testimony on the internal deliberations of the governor’s office to the Joint Select Committee on Investigation when it has already provided that information to the Mastro inquiry, which has made its assessment of those deliberations public.
The Christie administration’s ability to protect those interview tapes and/or transcripts from public scrutiny will be put to the test tomorrow, when the legislative committee co-chaired by Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg meets to vote on whether to issue a subpoena to the governor’s office for release of the 70 interviews with Christie, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, and other administration and campaign officials that the Gibbon Dunn team of lawyers conducted.
“There are copious references in the report to the 70 interviews. There are copious statements in the report about ‘so and so said this, so and so said that,’ but there are no footnotes, no documents that we can look at,”Saturday in explaining the need for his panel to demand the Mastro inquiry interviews. “Essentially, we have to take Randy Mastro’s word for it when we hear about all these interviews because we don’t have any proof or any documentation on them."
“If we’re going to look at the Randy Mastro report as even being probative of some value, we need to understand the underpinnings of it . . . We don’t have any factual background other than Randy Mastro’s word telling us what Kim Guadagno said,” Wisniewski noted, referring to Zimmer’s allegation that Guadagno transmitted a threat from the governor that he would withhold Sandy aid from her city of Hoboken if she did not approve a high-rise development represented by Christie ally and.
The decision by Wisniewski and Weinberg to press for the interviews sets up a partisan confrontation that will most likely be reflected in a party-line vote on the subpoena for the interviews conducted by Mastro’s team of lawyers.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) and Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (D-Bergen), a member of the investigative committee, both called for the committee to turn over its documents to the U.S. Attorney and the federal grand jury, issue no more subpoenas, and turn its attention to the passage of legislation reforming the Port Authority -- the agency that actually shut down the GWB lanes at the direction of David Wildstein, Christie’s third-ranking appointee at the authority.
“It’s time for us to turn the investigation over to law enforcement, and focus on passing legislation to make sure this never happens again,” Bramnick said, noting that Schepisi and the other three Assembly members of the Select Committee on Investigation have already introduced legislation to address ethical practices at the Port Authority.
Christie pledged to cooperate fully with the U.S. Attorney at an hour-long Statehouse press conference 10 days ago following release of the Mastro report, but hedged when asked about the Wisniewski-Weinberg probe.
Mastro and his Gibbon Dunn team were hired in January not only to conduct an internal inquiry, but also to advise the governor’s office on the release of documents, emails, phone records, and other materials to the various investigations that were then underway. These included not just the U.S. Attorney and the legislative committee, but the Port Authority’s Office of the Inspector General and a U.S. Senate transportation committee.
Wisniewski and Weinberg both noted with considerable irritation that Mastro provided their committee with 4,000 pages of emails and other communications on March 27, the day he had issued his report -- even though they had subpoenaed all relevant documents from the governor’s office in late January. Politically, the legislative committee most likely poses more of a problem for Christie over the next year than the probe by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the federal grand jury it has impaneled. The latter, whose existence was confirmed last Friday is impaneled to meet for 18 months, and based on the complexity of the investigations into the Bridgegate and Hoboken cases, as well as past practices, it would not be surprising if the grand jury probe took a year or longer.