Chris Christie's traffic jam is not over: The Bridgegate cover-up might be hiding in plain sight

More than 2 years after the scandal broke, the public is still in the dark about the bridge conspiracy

Published June 21, 2016 9:57AM (EDT)

Chris Christie   (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)
Chris Christie (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

More than two years after a multi-million dollar taxpayer-funded internal investigation of the Bridgegate scandal "cleared" Gov. Chris Christie, loose ends keep popping up.  One can only hope that the Department of Justice, which counts Christie as a former employee as a U.S. Attorney, is still paying attention.

Even as Christie’s name surfaces as a possible vice presidential pick for Donald Trump, these nagging questions only deepen the mystery around lane closures at the George Washington Bridge that prosecutors say was designed back in 2013 to punish Fort Lee residents because their mayor, a Democrat, refused to endorse Christie for re-election.

Back in March of 2014 the taxpayer-funded report commissioned by Christie was issued by Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, which counts Ted Olsen, of Bush vs. Gore fame as one of  its own. At the time, the 300-page report was widely read as an exoneration of Christie of any advance knowledge of the lane closures and of the subsequent cover-up. Coming, as it did, months ahead of the GOP presidential primary cycle it was seen as a political lifeline for Christie.

What’s New?

In December of 2014, several months after the release of the Gibson Dunn report, the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee of Investigation issued a report that included the results of a subpoena of AT&T for phone records and meta data which showed that on Dec. 9, 2013 there were a dozen private text messages between Christie and Regina Egea, his eventual chief of staff.

At the time of her texting with Christie, Egea was the director of the Authorities Unit in the Office of the Governor, and played a pivotal role in the Christie administration’s response to the Bridgegate scandal, which involved the George Washington Bridge that belongs to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

On the day and time in question, Egea was monitoring explosive state legislative hearings at which officials from the Port Authority were giving testimony which decimated the Christie Administration’s representation that the lane closures were part of legitimate traffic study undertaken by the bi-state agency.

In sworn testimony Egea only admitted to sending one text “not at all substantive" and then deleting it. Christie told reporters, when questioned about the missing texts, that  “it obviously was something of no moment or import because I have no recollection of it at all.”

And Just Where is the Guv’s Phone?

And just last month we learned that no one knows, including Christie, the exact whereabouts of the phone he was using during the period of time reflected in the AT&T records that were subpoenaed by the legislative panel investigating Bridgegate.

At a news conference just last month, Christie told reporters that he had turned it over to federal prosecutors. “It's in the hands of the government,” Christie said. “I don't know exactly who has it. But I turned it over in response to a request from the government, as I said I would. They have the information, they're more than welcome to it.”

There’s only one problem, the government says it does not have it. In a response from a query from Salon, Matthew Reilly, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Fishman said, contrary to Governor Christie’s statement they did not have it and never did.

“The governor’s telephone was never in the possession of federal authorities,” wrote Reilly in an email.  “As is typical in grand jury investigations, where an institution is represented by outside counsel, those lawyers review records, including those contained on mobile phones and computers, to identify and provide material that is responsive to subpoenas. That procedure was followed in this case.”

A call and email to Christie’s press office were not returned.

Timeline, Timeline, Timeline

The outside counsel that Reilly was referring to was Gibson and Dunn. The firm was not only responsible for the internal state review of Bridgegate, but also charged with responding  to document and electronic record requests from federal prosecutors on behalf of the Office of the Governor.

Gibson Dunn & Crutcher was retained only after Christie’s January 2014  disavowal of his own version of events that the lane closures were part of a legitimate Port Authority traffic study. Tha about-face was prompted by the publishing in the Bergen Record of an incriminating e:mail exchange between former Christie staffer Bridget Anne Kelly and David Wildstein, a former Port Authority official and Christie operative.

Christie, who has been dogged by questions about the Bridgegate scandal through out his 2013 re-election campaign, told reporters at the 100-minute marathon press conference in  January of 2014 that he had been the victim of Brigid Anne Kelly, a trusted staffer, who concealed her role in the Bridgegate scheme that created a traffic coronary on the anniversary week of Sept. 11,2013.

Christie summarily fired Kelly without an exit interview and repeatedly insisted he did not have  any advance  knowledge of the lane closures or off a subsequent cover-up. He apologized for any misstatements he had made in the months prior to the surfacing of the Kelly emails that blew the scandal wide open.

In an email, Randy Mastro, the lead partner on the Gibson Dunn Bridgegate team, confirmed to Salon that it had examined the governor’s phone in 2014 “and documents that remained there at the time of our review that were responsive to subpoenas were produced.”

Who knows how many personal texts and emails had been deleted by the time the white shoe law firm got on the case, months after Christie’s team had been playing 24-7 Bridgegate defense.  The Gibson & Dunn report does not disclose if they even asked the people they interviewed if they deleted any records relevant to the federal criminal probe prior to their interview.

The quick turnaround internal report

In short order by that March in 2014,  Gibson Dunn had its close to 300-page report ready for public release which summarized the results of their internal review.  The firm says it interviewed 70 witnesses, sometimes multiple times, and reviewed some 250,000 documents.

But the firm did not speak with the people at the heart of the scandal, Bridget Anne Kelly, a former Christie staffer and Bill Baroni, a former Port Authority executive and Christie partisan who were both criminally charged in connection with the September 2013 lane closures in May of 2015.

Also not on the list, former Christie campaign manager and staffer Bill Stepien and David Samson, the former chair of the Port Authority and longtime Christie confidant.

Yet in the report, the Gibson Dunn team said it was able to corroborate Christie's assertion that he had no role in the hatching of the lane closure scheme or in a subsequent cover-up.

“Governor Christie’s account of these events rings true,” wrote the Gibson Dunn team. “It is corroborated by many witnesses, and he has conducted himself at every turn as someone who has nothing to hide. Moreover, in all the documents we reviewed (including the personal texts and emails of the Governor and his senior staff) and from all the witnesses we interviewed, we uncovered nothing contradicting the Governor’s account.”

But Gibson Dunn is silent on Christie’s own text and document  retention practices and that of the dozens of other people they interviewed. It certainly makes no reference to the string of texts that were deleted in December of 2013 just as the Bridgegate cover story was going down in flames. That would not be made public for several months.

In the report’s recommendations, Gibson Dunn was critical of what it described as the “fairly routine” use of personal e:mail and texting in the discussion of public business in the governor’s office.  The reports authors raised the concern such a practice could be used to “circumvent” New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act and obstruct the public’s lawful  access to the correspondence and communications of public officials

The Gibson Dunn report says the only evidence they found of anyone in the Governor’s office trying to “conceal, destroy or otherwise cover up evidence” was former Christie staffer Brigid Anne Kelly’s efforts to have a colleague delete a potentially incriminating personal :mail.

Gibson Dunn also noted that because Kelly had communicated so much in her private text and personal e:mail “her participation in this plan was not to be found in government files; it was kept hidden in private text messages and personal email accounts to cover up her communications, making it difficult to uncover in any event.”

In May of 2015 U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman announced the indictment of Kelly, and Bill Baroni, a former Port Authority official and Christie operative. At the same time, Fishman reported the government had secured the guilty plea of David Wildstein,  also a former Port Authority executive and Christie operative, who had agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for consideration  at his sentencing.

At the time, Alan Zegas, Wildstein’s lawyer told reporters that Christie “knew of the lane closures” as they being executed and “evidence exists” that proved it. Who knows if that’s still true.

But deleted texts and a missing cell phone maybe the least of it when it comes to the still missing pieces of the foggy Bridgegate story.

Will the shadow Bridgegate posse ride off unknown and are lawyers and cops in that mix?

What’s particularly disturbing, is that despite the spending of tens of millions of dollars on both state and federal taxpayers funded investigations, the public is still being kept in the dark about the identity of a shadow Bridgegate posse of previously unnamed individuals that federal prosecutors have referred to only as “unindicted co-conspirators."

Last year what was driving the massive press interest in the case was the fate of Governor Christie with the long string of Presidential primaries still before him.

Throughout his 2013 re-election campaign, and for the months that followed, Christie, repeatedly advanced  the same cover story as the people who were subsequently indicted, that the lane closures  were part of a traffic study.  By May of 2015 prosecutors were charging that story was false and a central part of the broader criminal conspiracy.

At the time of the 2015 indictments U.S. Attorney Fishman was asked if the announcement of the indictments meant that  Christie was “in the clear.” Fishman would only say, that based on what he knew at that moment,  there were not going to be any additional criminal indictments.

Yet big questions remained. in the black and white of the government’s charging documents. Peppered in the dense narrative was the phrase that it was “Bridget Kelly, Bill Baroni, David Wildstein and others” who were involved in the criminal conspiracy.  The “others” remained a mystery.

We know that officers within the Port Authority police force were central to the execution of the lane closures and even drove Wildstein around so that he could view first hand the chaos the scheme caused. We know that former members of the US Attorney’s office, from the Christie era leading that office, were brought in to both the highest levels of state  government and the Port Authority once Christie became Governor.

When I asked US Attorney Fishman at the press conference in May 2015 about this unnamed crew he explained prosecutors wouldn’t  “identify un-indicted co-conspirators” by name “unless they have been previously mentioned in a publicly filed court document, and that is not the case here.”

“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.,” Fishman added. “That is not the standard for somebody to be an unindicted co-conspirator.”

Prosecutors can  also use the ambiguous unnamed status of an unindicted co-conspirator as a way to get  that person to cooperate  with the government by testifying to help the government make its case.

Subsequently, as part of the pre-trial process, Fishman  shared a confidential list of the unindicted co-conspirators with the  defense counsel  in the case whose pre-trial motions have  prompted questions about the whereabouts of the governor’s phone.

Major media organizations recently went to court to win the public release  of the list  and won the initial round, with U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton ordering their release last month on the grounds that disclosing the names was in the public interest.

"There is very little that is private about the lane closures or the lives of the people allegedly connected to them," ruled Wigenton.  "Further, individuals thus far identified as being involved in the lane closings have been public employees and/or elected and appointed officials.”

An attorney representing a “John Doe," one of  the alleged unindicted  co-conspirators  went to court and successfully delayed  the release of the list on the grounds that such a disclosure would destroy his career and professional reputation without providing him due process  to defend himself as well as violating his right to privacy.

Bruse Rosen, the attorney representing the media outlets, told the U.S. Appeals Court hearing the case in Philadelphia, that the  release of the list was critical so that the public could grasp just  “how deeply the conspiracy permeated New Jersey's government."

A ruling is pending. The criminal trial for Kelly and Baroni is still slated for September. One can only hope the investigation is still ongoing.

So many of the central players here are lawyers, even a former U.S Attorney. As it turns out, this case is really about the ability of lawyers to police their own.

By Robert Hennelly

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Bridgegate Chris Christie Bridgegate Donald Trump Port Authority Scandals