Chris Christie's work of fiction: What his defense lawyer's fake "probe" overlooked

Shockingly, the governor's own defense attorney exonerated him of all wrongdoing. Here's what his "report" botched

Published March 28, 2014 11:45AM (EDT)

Chris Christie                                    (AP/Matt Rourke)
Chris Christie (AP/Matt Rourke)

TRENTON, N.J. -- The 345-page outside counsel report commissioned by Gov. Chris Christie, which exonerates him of any role in the September 2013 Fort Lee lane closures, or in a subsequent coverup, is being dismissed by Trenton Democrats as a taxpayer-funded whitewash that is "entirely self-serving."

The report put out by Randy Mastro, a former deputy mayor for Mayor Rudy Giuliani, concludes that the idea of the lane closures originated with David Wildstein, a Christie operative at the Port Authority who looped in Bridget Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff.

In a bizarre dual role in the matter, Mastro is also quarterbacking the Christie administration's response to document production from federal prosecutors. The price tag of Mastro's review has been widely reported as costing taxpayers $1 million. Mastro did not contradict that dollar amount when a reporter included it in a question.

The outside counsel fact-finders at Mastro's firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher say Wildstein had "an unknown ulterior motive" and that Kelly took overt steps to conceal her involvement by asking a subordinate to delete what she considered an incriminating email.

The report concludes Wildstein did want to target Fort Lee's Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich. Yet it cast doubt on any linkage between the lane closures and efforts to pressure the mayor to back Christie's reelection because the report asserts Christie's office and his reelection campaign had already given up on a Sokolich endorsement months earlier.

In addition, the report notes Wildstein told Christie press secretary Michael Drewniak that he told Christie of the matter on Sept. 11 -- but then it insists Christie did not recall the conversation, and offers an omniscient defense of why the conversation wouldn't have stuck with him if it did:

"[Wildstein] even suggested he mentioned the traffic issue in Fort Lee to the Governor at a public event during the lane realignment—a reference that the Governor does not recall and, even if actually made, would not have registered with the Governor in any event because he knew nothing about this decision in advance and would not have considered another traffic issue at one of the bridges or tunnels to be memorable."

Back in January, Gov. Christie fired Kelly after emails surfaced that indicated she had set the lane closures in motion. For months Christie had denied that anyone on his staff played a role in the  lane closures. He told reporters at a marathon press conference he fired Kelly for steadfastly denying she had any role in the scheme. Christie never followed up with Kelly about what was behind her actions.

At a packed press conference, Mastro, a former federal prosecutor and prime author of the report, told reporters that his conclusion about Gov. Christie's innocence was based on an exhaustive review of 250,000 documents, 70 interviews and total access to Gov. Christie.

But Mastro conceded that his team of former prosecutors did not interview Bridget Kelly, former Christie staffer; David Wildstein, a Christie operative at the Port Authority; or Bill Stepien, a former Christie campaign manager. All three have invoked their Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. Subsequently released emails suggested all three were involved in some kind of coordinated effort.

The report says that Bill Baroni, Christie's point man within the Port Authority, and Stepien, Christie's former campaign manager, "knew of this idea [lane closures] in advance," but Mastro's team found no evidence that either knew what Wildstein's "ulterior" motive was.

Further, without speaking to Stepien or Kelly, the report says that the two had a personal relationship, and insists this is relevant because Kelly may have been "jilted" and therefore motivated to do irrational things. It also assails the sanity of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who says the administration withheld Hurricane Sandy aid unless she approved a favored development deal, suggesting her perceptions "do not match objective reality."

Mastro disclosed that former Attorney General David Samson, who is the current chairman of the Port Authority, and a longtime Christie ally, declined to participate in the internal review. It has already been widely reported, based on publicly released emails, that Samson was involved with damage control after the massive traffic tie-ups made headlines.

Mastro said based on his investigation he was confident that Samson had no advance knowledge of the plan to close the lanes.

Earlier this month the Wall Street Journal reported that federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York had issued subpoenas related to clients Samson's law firm represents that also do hundreds of millions of dollars of business with the bi-state agency Samson chairs.

Subsequent press accounts reported those subpoenas were withdrawn. The "Bridgegate" probe is being conducted by Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey.

Mastro told reporters that his close association with Giuliani, who has since emerged as Christie's prime defender talking head, had not tainted his review.

"Yes, I am very proud to have been deputy mayor under Mayor Giuliani," Mastro said. "I am also a proud Democrat and I am also someone who is fiercely independent," Mastro insisted. Mastro backed up his assertion by noting he had sued Mayor Bloomberg and represented prominent Democrats like Mayor Bill de Blasio and former City Comptroller Bill Thompson.

"We are lawyers, former federal prosecutors, professionals doing an independent investigation," Mastro said. He told reporters his probe was not happening in a void and that outcomes from parallel investigations by the U.S. attorney and a special legislative panel in Trenton were all still pending.

"We are going to be judged if we got it right," Mastro said.

But top Democrats say the report raises more questions than it answers. "Police arrive at the scene of a murder finding three people in the house with the victim. They investigate it, but don't speak to those people in the house with the body?" asks Democratic state Sen. Dick Codey.

In the recommendation portion of Mastro's review the authors call for the appointment of an ombudsman -- "a senior statesman of unquestioned integrity and independence" -- to make sure complaints that come into the governor's office get a proper response.

Also, the outside counsel calls for the creation of a new office, a chief ethics officer dedicated to overseeing training to make sure that the governor's staff does not do what Kelly allegedly did, use personal email accounts to do state business.

The defense attorney's report clears the man managing this entire enterprise -- Gov. Chris Christie -- of any and all wrongdoing.

The governor appeared on ABC News Thursday night to hail the findings in an interview with Diane Sawyer. Christie told Sawyer he felt he had been taken advantage of because of his "trusting" nature.

"I was certainly disappointed in myself that I did not pick up these traits in these people," Christie told Sawyer.

As far as his presidential prospects were concerned, Christie said that nothing that has surfaced in the "Bridgegate" probes would disqualify him from a 2016 Presidential run. He said he would make that decision a year from now.

Christie is expected to fly out to Las Vegas this weekend for the annual spring meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition where he will be joined by several other GOP presidential contenders.

By Robert Hennelly

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