Christie's Bridgegate Lawyers Pick Up Fundraising Slack As Billionaire Backers Fade Away
Gov. Christie is losing campaign support from billionaire backers, but taxpayer-funded lawyers representing him in New Jersey legal controversies, including Bridgegate, have picked up the slack and injected much-needed cash into his campaign.
Kenneth Langone, the co-founder of Home Depot who was once Christie’s most prominent wealthy supporter, funded neither Christie’s campaign nor the super PAC behind his candidacy, America Leads, in the fourth quarter of 2015, according to filings released this week. He hasn’t made a contribution since August 31.
Another one-time prominent backer, billionaire money manager Stanley F. Druckenmiller, made his last 2015 donation to America Leads on April 30. (Data from 2016 is not yet available.)
Christie, whose campaign had less money than eight of his rivals as of December 31, hinted this week that his persistently poor poll numbers may have been a factor in his fundraising woes. "Very few people in the fundraising business do it based on principle -- they're trying to predict a winner," Christie told NBC.
Into the void left by the billionaires steps no fewer than 28 lawyers from the firm Gibson Dunn, which prepared the internal investigation exonerating Christie of wrongdoing in Bridgegate. Those attorneys, in addition to the firm’s political action committee, have given Christie's campaign $67,700 -- representing his biggest source of campaign funds in the fourth quarter of last year.
Four Gibson Dunn lawyers who helped to lead the investigation, which Christie has repeatedly called "independent," were among the contributors. All former federal prosecutors, they interviewed witnesses, prepared a report that proclaimed Christie's innocence and have continued to represent the governor. A federal trial involving former Christie appointees looms in May.
As of August, Gibson Dunn had billed taxpayers $8 million for its work. But the firm's methods have been slammed by a federal court judge and attorneys who represent the former Christie underlings charged in the scheme to close lanes at the George Washington Bridge.
Attorneys representing the two former Christie appointees charged in the case said that Gibson Dunn improperly withheld or redacted thousands of documents -- including emails sent between top Christie officials during the week of the lane closures in September 2013. They also allege that the documents that Gibson Dunn did hand over are disorganized and incomplete -- with 1.7 million unsearchable pages.
In December U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton wrote that Gibson Dunn effectively shredded documents before being required to produce them to other counsel. In a court filing she said that while taxpayers were promised a transparent investigation they instead got "opacity and gamesmanship."
As Wigenton was scolding Gibson Dunn, its lawyers were writing checks to Christie. Almost all of the Gibson Dunn contributions came in mid-December, when one of Christie’s Bridgegate attorneys, Debra Wong Yang, hosted a fundraiser for his presidential campaign at the Los Angeles home of Steve Cohen, a controversial hedge fund billionaire who has provided pro-Christie America Leads with a quarter of its funds.
Yang, a friend of Christie's who has vacationed with his family and helped to interview him as part of the investigation, has billed taxpayers more than most of her colleagues. In 2014, Yang helped to fund and then attended Christie’s reelection inaugural. After the event she spent the remainder of the day interviewing witnesses for the investigation, which Christie has long maintained was "independent."
Randy Mastro, who became the face of the firm's Bridgegate investigation when he held a spirited press conference announcing its release in March 2014, donated $2,700 to the campaign, the maximum allowed under federal law.
The other lawyers involved in the case who have donated to the campaign, Avi Weitzman and Alexander Southwell, have their involvement in the matter listed in their biographies on the Gibson Dunn web site. Southwell, who gave the campaign $2,700, "conducted and supervised interviews of over 70 witnesses and review of more than 250,000 documents" to prepare the firm’s Bridgegate report, according to the biography.
Southwell teaches a law school seminar that deals with the use of electronic evidence -- an issue that is expected to be the crux of the Bridgegate trial in May. Defense lawyers allege that Christie's attorneys effectively hid critical information when they failed to electronically store notes from the investigation; Mastro has said notes were not taken due in part to intense media scrutiny.
It's not just Bridgegate. Another law firm that does millions of dollars in outside legal work for the Christie Administration and the Port Authority, Gibbons P.C., has also been a boon to Christie’s campaign. Thirty-six Gibbons attorneys, according to the most recent filings, have provided $51,000 toward Christie’s White House bid. One of Christie's long-time confidants and fundraisers, Bill Palatucci, is an attorney at the firm.
Gibbons is currently defending the Christie Administration in a high-profile whistleblower lawsuit from Ben Barlyn, a former county prosecutor who claims that he was fired after objecting to an unusual decision by Christie officials to quash political corruption indictments of the governor’s allies.
Taxpayers have provided Gibbons $2.6 million so far in that case, according to invoices obtained by Barlyn through an open records request.
Gibbons, which often lobbies the Christie Administration on behalf of corporate clients, has also been retained by the Christie campaign to handle its legal work.
Although New Jersey's laws against "pay-to-play" prohibit people who contract with the state from donating to political campaigns, the donations to Christie are for a federal campaign and, hence, do not apply.