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Trouble Ahead: Christie’s Bridgegate Gamble Creates New Challenges

In the meantime, Christie can continue to point to the Mastro inquiry commissioned by his governor’s office as proof that he, his lieutenant governor, and his current top aides have been exonerated of all wrongdoing -- even if most polls show that neither New Jersey voters nor the national electorate believe that he is telling the full truth about his involvement in Bridgegate.

The problem for Christie is that release of the interviews to the Wisniewski-Weinberg committee will enable the panel’s Democratic legislators to pick at the integrity of the investigation -- which diverged from accepted federal standards in its coloring of the facts, failure to detail its sources, and lack of independence from the people it was investigating, The Record reported yesterday.

Going Public

Even more important, release of the interviews -- and the list of the 70 people interviewed, which Mastro and the governor’s office have refused to make public -- could enable Democrats to cast doubt on the adequacy of the investigation that cleared Christie and his top staff of wrongdoing.

It is not only that the Mastro committee was unable to interview Wildstein, who took the Fifth Amendment before the legislative panel, and Kelly and Christie’s former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, whose Fifth Amendment refusal to cooperate with the legislative investigation will soon be the subject of a ruling by a state judge.

It is also that the Mastro team cleared Christie and his top aides without interviewing a single Port Authority employee. That includes not just an unwilling Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and Chairman David Samson, who actively tried to suppress public disclosure of the reasons for the Bridgegate lane closures, as well as Port Authority PBA union chief Paul Nunziato, who claimed in December that the lane closures were his idea, and PBA Lt. Thomas “Chip” Michaels, a friend of the Christie family who drove Wildstein around the first day of the bridge closures.

Similarly, the Mastro team was not able to interview Zimmer or any of her top aides in Hoboken, or Fort Lee Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich, whose refusal to endorse Christie for reelection was reportedly the reason for the lane closures that Kelly and Wildstein orchestrated.

Moreover, the eventual public disclosure of the interviews with Christie and the senior staff in the governor’s office will raise questions about whether the existence of a pervasive “us against them” mentality during the governor’s 2013 reelection campaign led a core staff made up primarily of veterans of Christie’s U.S. Attorney’s Office to fail to properly investigate the growing body of evidence that the lane closures were not part of a legitimate traffic study -- as Baroni insisted in testimony to Wisniewski’s Assembly Transportation Committee in November that went through the governor’s office.

Of particular importance is the testimony of Regina Egea, Christie’s authorities unit director and incoming chief of staff, about why she failed to forward Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye’s memo contending that federal and state laws may have been broken by the Bridgegate lane closures -- a memo she marked “Importance: High” when she sent it along to her unit’s counsel – up to Christie, Chief of Staff Kevin O’Dowd, and Chief Counsel Charles McKenna.

Also critical is testimony by Christie and O’Dowd on whether they knew that Kelly’s intergovernmental affairs unit was rewarding and punishing mayors -- including Democrats Sokolich, Zimmer, and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop -- based on whether they were providing the expected level of support for the governor’s reelection campaign, and whether that office, under both Kelly and her mentor Stepien, was stepping over the line in doing political work on taxpayer time.

Investigators will want to get McKenna’s testimony to understand why he did nothing more than interview Baroni when Christie asked him and O’Dowd to look into the Bridgegate matter after an October 1 Wall Street Journal article reported Foye’s memo, which came as a surprise to them and to Christie because Egea had not passed it up the chain of command.

Disclosure of interviews with Kelly’s staff, including Matt Mowers, Christine Genovese Renna, and Evan Ridley, would cast an unwelcome spotlight on potentially improper political activities carried out by the intergovernmental affairs unit of the governor’s office, while interviews with Drewniak and other members of the governor’s press office would show clearly how they shaped the administration’s official response to Bridgegate.

If the legislative committee is able to subpoena the Mastro interviews -- either because Christie agrees to surrender them voluntarily or because he loses a court battle to block their release -- it would give the investigative panel additional reason to summon top Christie administration officials, and perhaps the governor himself, to come in to answer questions raised by their interviews with the Mastro committee.

More than anything else, it is that parade of witnesses that Christie wants to avoid as he fights to reassert himself in the 2016 presidential race and campaigns nationwide raising millions for GOP gubernatorial candidates this year as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

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