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Bridgegate Panel To Begin Calling Witnesses Next Month

Wisniewski blasts participation of Christie friend in governor’s interview, release of Mastro memos raises more issues

Assemblyman John Wisniewski
Credit: NJTV
Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski

After receiving 75 interview memos compiled by the governor’s internal investigation team, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), cochairman of the Legislature’s Select Committee on Investigation, said yesterday his panel would begin calling witnesses next month to testify in the Bridgegate scandal.

“We’re looking at a May timetable to start bringing in witnesses,” said Wisniewski, who sharply questioned the integrity of the report by Randy Mastro’s Gibson Dunn & Crutcher law firm that exonerated Gov. Chris Christie and his top aides of all wrongdoing in the Bridgegate and Hoboken cases.

Wisniewski said he was shocked that one of the three Gibson Dunn lawyers who sat in on the Christie interviews was Debra Wong Yang, who not only is such a close friend of the governor that their families have vacationed together, but who also received a lucrative monitoring contract from Christie when he was serving as U.S. Attorney. “It’s hard to imagine how she could be truly objective being indebted to the man,” Wisniewski said incredulously.

Wisniewski said Gibson Dunn lawyers confirmed that there were no tapes or transcripts of the 75 interviews the firm conducted, and characterized the interview memos compiled by Mastro’s team of lawyers as “the definition of hearsay” because there is no way of knowing if the descriptions of the interviews are accurate or if important information was left out.

“It really runs to the fundamental question of what was Gibson Dunn’s mission. If you are a defense attorney defending someone and accepting their actions, then the generally accepted rule of thumb is that you don’t tape the interview,” said Wisniewski, who is a lawyer.

“But this was represented as a ‘no-holds-barred’ examination of the governor’s office,” he said. “If so, everything that was said should be preserved so that the committee and ordinary citizens can decide for themselves if what was said sounded reasonable. It seems like the goal of the Mastro report was to create a narrative that exculpated the governor’s office and redefined the facts.”

Seeking to revive his flagging 2016 presidential aspirations, Christie has been telling GOP audiences that the Mastro investigation exonerated him and his current aides of any wrongdoing in the politically motivated closure of toll lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee. It also, according to Christie, demonstrated that Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegation that top administration officials threatened to withhold Sandy aid unless she supported a high-rise development favored by Christie was “demonstrably false.”

A Quinnipiac Poll showed that most New Jerseyans believe that the Mastro report, which was commissioned by the governor’s office at a cost of at least $1 million to taxpayers, was a “whitewash.”

Mastro did not interview the five key figures at the center of the Bridgegate scandal who have been fired or resigned under fire -- Christie deputy of staff Bridget Kelly, Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien, and Christie’s top three Port Authority appointees, David Samson, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein. Zimmer and Fort Lee Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich, the alleged target of the GWB lane closures because of his refusal to endorse Christie for reelection, declined to be interviewed.

Nevertheless, the 75 interviews released yesterday provide important insights into both the Bridgegate and Hoboken cases, and will undoubtedly raise further questions about the impartiality and rigor of the Mastro report by showing what the legal team hired by the governor’s office chose to leave out of its original 343-page document:

  • The Mastro team glossed over evidence of improper political activity by the governor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs (IGA) under Kelly, which not only worked to collect endorsements for Christie, but cleared important decisions with the governor’s reelection campaign under Stepien, according to an interview with Richard Rebisz, IGA’s Sandy director for 11 North and Central Jersey towns including Hoboken.

  • The interview with Christie showed that he knew in December that “he had to clean up the mess” from the Bridgegate scandal even while he continued to defend the lane closures as a legitimate traffic study, and that Christie ordered Chief of Staff Kevin O’Dowd and Chief Counsel Charlie McKenna to demand Baroni’s immediate resignation, then held a press conference the following day at which he defended Baroni publicly against allegations of wrongdoing.

  • Christie said publicly that he ordered O’Dowd and McKenna to investigate Bridgegate after the Wall Street Journal published Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye’s memo on October 1 charging that the lane closures violated state and federal law. Further, the Mastro report said that McKenna questioned Baroni and was satisfied that the lane closures were part of a legitimate traffic study. But McKenna said in his interview that he did not talk to Baroni until almost seven weeks later when he was prepping him to testify before the Assembly Transportation Committee.

  • The Mastro report went to great lengths to discredit Zimmer’s claim that Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable pressured her to support the Rockefeller Group development before a Sandy forum at Monmouth University. But the report failed to mention that Constable himself told interviewers that Zimmer mentioned the Rockefeller project while they were sitting on stage together, and that he offered to set up a meeting with top state officials to discuss development in Hoboken.

Rebisz, whose comments are not cited in the Mastro report, provides perhaps the most important insights in the 75 interview memoranda made public yesterday. His perspective fills a critical void because Stepien, Christie’s 2009 campaign manager who shaped the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs into the political arm of the governor’s office, and his protégé and successor, Kelly, last week obtained a ruling from Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson upholding their Fifth Amendment right to refuse to cooperate with the Joint Committee on Investigation.

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