An internal review commissioned by Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey concludes that the governor was not aware of the political retribution being planned by a pair of his associates in the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal.
"Governor Christie’s account of these events rings true," reads the report, which was conducted at Christie's direction and released Thursday. "It is corroborated by many witnesses, and he has conducted himself at every turn as someone who has nothing to hide."
The report by a team of lawyers from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher -– a firm with close ties to Christie -- mirrors the governor’s January 9 statement that he was unaware of the plot to close the bridge lanes in order to exact political revenge on Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich.
We have not found any evidence of anyone in the Governor’s Office knowing about the lane realignment beforehand or otherwise being involved, besides Bridget Kelly.
"Our investigation found that Governor Christie did not know of the lane realignment beforehand and had no involvement in the decision to realign the lanes," it reads. Investigators also state that after Christie became aware of criticism of the lane closures, "he made appropriate inquiries and even convened a special meeting of his senior staff on December 13, 2013, demanding to know whether any of them were involved in this decision, only to be lied to by [then-deputy chief of staff Bridget Ann] Kelly."
The review also found "no evidence" that other top Christie associates Bill Stepien -- then the governor's campaign manager -- and top Port Authority official Bill Baroni knew of the nefarious motives behind the lane closures, although they were aware that the traffic pattern was being changed.
“We have not found any evidence of anyone in the Governor’s Office knowing about the lane realignment beforehand or otherwise being involved, besides Bridget Kelly,” it concludes.
Critics have pointed out Christie's close ties to the chief of the law firm and said that the report lacks crucial testimony from those most deeply involved with the lane closures, including Kelly, Stepien, former Port Authority staffer David Wildstein and Port Authority Chairman David Sampson. Several other investigations of the George Washington Bridge matter are ongoing.
Asked during a press briefing after the report's release whether Christie's ties to the firm could have colored its conclusions, partner Randy Mastro said that the firm had an "obligation" to the public office that retained it and that he believes its findings reflect the truth.
"Had we found evidence to the contrary of what we found, we would have been reporting that," Mastro said.
The report notes that Wildstein claims to have informed Christie of the ongoing lane closures during a September 11 memorial event. But the investigators counter that Christie does not recall that exchange. "Indeed, it seems highly unlikely such a brief mention, even if made by Wildstein to the Governor, would have registered with the Governor at all."
Mastro said that Christie "recalls having brief interaction with others, including Wildstein" at that event but that he “does not recall specifics of that conversation.”
The report, which authors say included the review of more 250,000 documents and interviews with more than 70 witnesses, notes that it does not include the participation of “several key witnesses” who refused to co-operated or asserted their Fifth Amendment rights. But authors say they are “confident that, based on our thorough review, we have a clear understanding of what happened here, even if the participants’ precise motives remain to be determined.”
According to the report, Wildstein was the driving force behind the plan to close the toll lanes and that he and Kelly communicated about the closure using personal email accounts. (Wildstein resigned in December; Christie fired Kelly in January after revelations of her involvement.)
While the precise motivations for the lane closures remain opaque, the report offers further evidence that Kelly was concerned about dealings between the Christie administration and Sokolich, the reported target of the traffic fiasco.
The day before her infamous "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" message, Kelly reconfirmed that Sokolich would not endorse Christie for re-election. Then, according to correspondence published in the report, she was "irate" and "on fire" when a Christie aide met with Sokolich several days later without her knowledge.
After the closures began, upon hearing that Sokolich had called to express his dismay over the closures, she wrote by personal email: "Good." After the governor started making inquiries into the matter, the report claims, Kelly called a staffer with the "desperate request" to delete that email.
The authors of the report also questioned a separate account by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who accused the governor's staff of coercing her into green-lighting a real estate deal in exchange for aid for Superstorm Sandy recovery.
"Our investigation found that Mayor Zimmer’s allegations are, in material respects, demonstrably false," authors wrote. "They are contradicted by contemporaneous documents, other witnesses’accounts, and her own prior statements. In sum, the subjective perceptions she may have do not match objective reality, as reflected in the hard evidence uncovered during our investigation."
In a statement, Zimmer called the report a "one-sided whitewash of serious misconduct by the Christie Administration."
"This report only reinforces the soundness of the decision I made not to cooperate with Mr. Mastro’s so-called investigation," he said. "To do so would only have leant credibility to an effort that, unfortunately for the taxpayers of New Jersey, has no credibility or legitimacy whatsoever."
First published March 27 2014, 8:39 AM