More than a decade ago, when Gov. Chris Christie was US Attorney for the District of New Jersey, he was already becoming known as the scourge of the “Soprano state’s” storied political corruption, building a reputation for prosecuting Jersey officeholders who abused their power for personal gain.
That reputation eventually swept him into the governor’s office and made him a national figure, with a potential path to the White House clearly in view.
But now the former US attorney is himself the officeholder under investigation in this ever-deepening political saga. On Thursday, Governor Christie’s successor at the New Jersey District office, Paul Fishman, expanded his probe of the toll-lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, issuing subpoenas both to Christie’s reelection campaign and to the New Jersey Republican State Committee.
These federal subpoenas come days after a special New Jersey legislative committee, also investigating the Fort Lee lane closures, issued subpoenas of its own, seeking documents from Christie staff members and appointees, as well as those from the governor’s office and reelection committee.
US Attorney Fishman, whose office had previously said it was simply reviewing the “traffic study” closures to see if any federal laws had been broken, is now in full investigative mode, seeking all documents related to the abuse-of-power scandal that has put a rumble strip in the path of the Christie political juggernaut.
The subpoenas from the state committee, too, require the Christie administration and reelection committee to turn over all documents related to the finances, operations, and management of the Port Authority, including but not limited to the lane-closure scandal, “and any other matter raising concerns about abuse of power," according to the committee’s subpoena.
“The campaign and the state party intend to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney's office and the state legislative committee and will respond to the subpoenas accordingly,” said Mark Sheridan, an attorney for Patton Boggs, a powerhouse D.C.-based law firm with offices in Newark, in a statement. The firm is representing both Christie’s reelection campaign and the state GOP committee.
Last week, Christie also hired the Manhattan lawfirm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which he said will conduct an internal review of the lane closures and help cooperate with the US attorney. The firm’s legal team is being led by Randy Mastro, also a former pitbull prosecutor under Rudolph Giuliani when the former New York City mayor was the US district attorney in Manhattan. Mr. Mastro led the office’s crackdown against the mafia, which launched Mr. Giuliani’s political career.
So now, after the initial jaw-dropping revelation that some of Christie’s closest aides concocted a “time for a traffic jam in Fort Lee” scheme – an apparent act of political payback against the borough’s Democratic mayor, who had not endorsed Christie’s campaign for reelection last fall – the saga is becoming a cat-and-mouse game of lawyers, one that could drag out for months, if not longer.
“This will just be the first round of subpoenas – it will not be the only round,” says James Cohen, professor at Fordham University’s School of Law in New York. “And they’re going to play it very close the vest, not only because that’s normal in litigation, but because there might be something really going on under here.”
It’s a game that Christie knows well, of course. At the start of his own six-year tenure as US. attorney, he immediately went after politicians who abused their power, doubling the office’s anticorruption unit from seven to 14 attorneys. And Christie’s staff eventually convicted or got guilty pleas from more than 130 elected and appointed officials – without a single acquittal.
These included six county officeholders, 15 municipal officials, 18 mayors, and five New Jersey legislators, including Garden State icons such as Sharpe James, the five-term mayor of Newark. Indeed, even during Christie’s first year, a federal judge once quipped that the court “has so many cases that deal with public corruption that we literally can’t count them anymore.”
“There is some irony here, but don’t forget that so far we’re still looking at two prongs of the investigation,” says Professor Cohen. “One is this ‘Bridge-gate,’ which doesn’t appear to have anything to do with money at the moment, and the other is the alleged threats that the lieutenant governor [Kim Guadagno], and maybe others in the administration, made to gather support for a development project. Now that’s the kind of thing that Christie prosecuted – he didn’t prosecute things like Bridge-gate.”
Indeed, many legal experts doubt that, based on the information that is public at the moment, the lane-closure scandal will lead to any criminal charges, since no one appeared to profit personally from the scheme.
Far more dangerous, many say, is Fishman’s separate probe into allegations by Hoboken’s current Democratic mayor, Dawn Zimmer, who has publicly said that Lt. Governor Guadagno, a Republican, told her that federal money to fortify Hoboken from future superstorms like Sandy would hinge on her supporting a commercial project in the city by the Rockefeller Group, the commercial real estate developer that built Manhattan's Rockefeller Center.
And some of the same characters in the Bridge-gate controversy appear here as well. The developer is represented by Wolff & Samson – whose founding partner, David Samson, was appointed chairman of the Port Authority by Christie. And last spring, the Port Authority paid $75,000 to conduct a study of the proposed development site in Hoboken.
According to Mayor Zimmer, Guadagno told her that Christie had sent her personally because the project was important to the governor. Guadagno denies Zimmer’s account, calling it false and “illogical.”
On Sunday, investigators from Fishman’s office interviewed Zimmer and some of her staff about the alleged threat of withholding money for the city’s coastal fortifications.
In the meantime, Christie is surrounding himself with some of the country’s best trial defense attorneys.
“He had built a reputation in getting at least the low hanging fruit on the money side of his corruption investigations,” says Cohen. “He was a political appointee back then, and he decided what his agenda was, which was to go after politicians, among others.”
“So I’m sure he learned something from being head of that office for six years,” he says.