While other Republican presidential contenders get to make their case for why they should lead the country, or take pot shots at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, New Jersey Governor Christie is doing his best to not let his past define him. But when that past, in the form of Bridgegate, continues to dominate the news, that gets harder and harder to do.
Just wait for the Bridgegate trials to begin.
If Bloomberg News is right, Federal prosecutors haven't just been going after Bill Baroni, Bridget Anne Kelly, and David Wildstein, all of whom were indicted yesterday on federal corruption charges, and the latter of whom has already pleaded guilty; prosecutors are also apparently looking at former Port Authority Chairman and Christie confidant David Sampson in a separate criminal probe not related to Bridegate, but to allegations Samson tried to shake down United Airlines.
In the meantime, in damage control mode, Christie used Wildstein's guilty plea and the indictments of Baroni and Kelly, and the fact that he was not himself named in the indictment, as proof that he’s in the clear on Bridgegate. In a statement, Christie said that the “charges make clear what I’ve said from day one is true: I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act.”
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who has been on the Bridgegate caper since January of 2014, did offer Christie a kind of qualified lifeline at his press conference Friday, saying: “Based currently on the evidence available to my office and the agents with whom we have been working, we will not be bringing any further charges related to the matters discussed in today’s indictment.”
Yet just minutes after Wildstein's guilty plea was formally announced, his lawyer Allan Zegas was serving up red meat for hungry reporters. Zegas relayed to reporters Wildstein’s contrition for his role in the alleged plot, but before he walked away from the microphones, he re-iterated what he has said before, that “evidence exists that Governor knew of the lane closures while they were occurring.”
Zegas told reporters that Wildstein, one of Christie’s former point men in the Port Authority, had been cooperating for some time with federal prosecutors, had answered thousands of question from them, and was still being questioned. Zegas volunteered also that “there is a lot more that will come out,” all of which he said that Wildstein will be willing to testify about at trial. Wildstein is scheduled to be sentenced in August, but that could be moved until after the trial, when the government and the judge in the case can fully assess just how well Wildstein cooperated with prosecutors.
When U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman was asked directly at yesterday's press conference about Zegas’s tantalizing comments about Christie, Fishman declined to answer. When Fishman was asked directly if Christie “was in the clear,” he said “I am not sure what that means so I really can’t answer that question.”
“Is he going to be further investigated,” the questioner pressed.
“I am not going to comment on whether anybody is going to be further investigated in connection with this or any other matter ever,” said Fishman.
“Can we say [Christie is] cooperating?” another reporter asked.
“I am not going to say whether witnesses are, or are not, cooperating.”Fishman responded.
Another reporter asked if it could be said that Governor Christie had been misled by the conspirators. Fishman passed on that question as well.
But Fishman but did have his version of a "stay tuned" tease when he confirmed that other names might surface in the case as “un-indicted co-conspirators,” who may have been willful participants but might not be charged for their role in what prosecutors allege was a criminal conspiracy.
“The indictment does say Bridget Kelly, Bill Baroni, David Wildstein and others” Fishman conceded. “We don’t identify un-indicted co-conspirators in our indictment by name unless they have been previously mentioned in a publicly filed court document, and that is not the case here. There may come a time during the course of the proceedings when we will make a disclosure to the court or defense council who the co-conspirators are, but it is Department of Justice policy not to do it now,” Fishman told reporters.
“To charge someone and to convict someone, we have an obligation to only bring a case in which we have sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is in fact guilty of a crime. That is not the standard for somebody to be an un-indicted co-conspirator. The standard for an un-indicted co-conspirator can be less than that. It can also be that we don’t plan on charging somebody that was involved,” Fishman said.
The indictment charges that Baroni, Kelly and Wildstein purposefully timed the George Washington Bridge lane closures in September 2013 to create maximum havoc on the first day of school, punishment doled out after Fort Lee's Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich refused to endorse Christie for re-election. What will come out in excruciating detail at trial is just how vindictive the plan actually was in its particulars. This will no doubt provide an opportunity for the news media to run archival tape of Governor Christie publicly offering the defense that the Fort Lee traffic jam was caused by for a legitimate Port Authority traffic study, a cover story Federal prosecutors now charge was entirely fabricated, and a part of the criminal conspiracy.
Based on the tenor of the post-indictment press availabilities for lawyers representing Bill Baroni, and a similar availability held by former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly and her attorney, what the public is going to be treated to at trial will be a public circular firing squad. It will be Christie operative turning on Christie operative, all with their liberty hanging in the balance. All parties have vowed to mount vigorous defenses that will paint David Widlstein as a liar.
And what do all three of these folks have in common? Governor Christie thought they were all fit to hold high positions of public trust.