An internal review of the Bridge-gate controversy, commissioned by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie after the lane-closure scandal broke in January, concluded he “knew nothing about it,” placing the blame instead on the “aberrational behavior” of a close aide and the “crazy” ideas of his appointee at the Port Authority.
The 344-page report, released Thursday by the high-powered Manhattan law firm Gibson Dunn, emphasized the actions of Bridget Kelly, the governor’s former deputy chief-of-staff, and David Wildstein, the former director at the Port Authority.
But there was “not a shred of evidence” that Governor Christie knew about the lane closures beforehand, Randy Mastro, the Gibson Dunn attorney who led the review, said at a Thursday news conference. “Our findings today are a vindication of Governor Christie.”
The vindication is not surprising, however, since the firm also represents the Christie administration, handling the legal fallout of ongoing investigations by New Jersey lawmakers and the US Attorney in New Jersey.
But the report also delivered potentially explosive new information. Mr. Wildstein, a high-school classmate of Christie’s, said he had informed the governor of the lane closures at a Sept. 11 memorial event at Ground Zero – a conversation Christie said he does not recall, according to the internal review.
The Gibson Dunn report also alleges that Ms. Kelly directed one of her assistants to delete a relevant e-mail in December, an e-mail in which she quipped “good” to news that Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich was angry about the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, which engulfed the small borough in a chaos of traffic. “Do me a favor and get rid of that,” she told the assistant, according to the review.
The assistant complied, but then sent the e-mail chain to a personal account, where it was later discovered by investigators.
Last September, Kelly also sent Wildstein the now-infamous e-mail, “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” which has been the symbolic headline of the two-and-a-half month scandal. “Got it,” Wildstein replied, going on to organize the “traffic study” that angered the Fort Lee mayor.
Though the report mentions the possible motive of the closures as a political payback scheme against Mayor Sokolich, a Democrat who did not endorse the governor last year as many others had, it concludes that the participants’ “precise motives remain to be determined.”
Yet the report goes out of its way to subtly undercut the idea of the closures as political payback. It notes that by his own account, Sokolich had a “good relationship” with the Christie administration, and remained on a list of mayors being considered for honorary appointments by the governor. And it cites Sokolich’s statement that he found it “incomprehensible that there’s any truth whatsoever to these rumors” about political retaliation.
The Fort Lee mayor declined to be interviewed by Christie’s attorneys, however.
Despite finding a lack of a clear motive, the report minced no words about where the responsibility lay.
“The evidence shows that this lane realignment plan was ordered by Wildstein, with the knowledge, consent, and authorization of Kelly, and that these individuals tried to cover up the operation after the fact,” the report states.
A corps of attorneys from Gibson Dunn, including five seasoned former prosecutors, interviewed more than 70 people, the firm said, including the governor and other top members of his administration. They also had access to private e-mails and phone records of current and former administration officials.
But Gibson Dunn attorneys did not obtain this kind of information from Kelly or Wildstein, who have asserted their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and did not cooperate with investigators.
It also did not get information from two other central figures, Bill Stepien, the governor’s former campaign manager and architect of the political campaigns that launched Christie to the top of GOP presidential hopefuls, and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, also a Christie appointee.
“The evidence with respect to Stepien and Baroni is inconclusive,” the report stated. “[We] found no evidence that they were aware of any ulterior motive behind the decision to effectuate the lane realignment, but they engaged in conduct during or after the lane realignment that is concerning.”
The report also says Kelly was “personally involved” with Mr. Stepien, who held the deputy chief of staff position before he left to organize Christie’s possible national campaign, working with the Republican Governor’s Association.
The internal review also examined the allegations of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who has accused the Christie administration of using federal relief funds from superstorm Sandy as leverage to get a building project approved. Many observers have said these allegations are far more serious than the lane closures.
Mayor Zimmer’s allegations are “unsubstantiated” and “demonstrably false,” the report stated.
New Jersey lawmakers leading the state legislature’s joint investigation of the Bridge-gate and Hoboken scandals, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D) and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-), expressed skepticism at the Gibson Dunn review.
“Lawyers hired by and paid by the Christie administration itself to investigate the governor’s office who then say the governor and most of his office did nothing wrong will not be the final word on this matter,” they said in a statement. “The people of New Jersey need a full accounting of what happened. This review has deficiencies that raise questions about a lack of objectivity and thoroughness.”
The internal review cost the administration over $1 million, which will be paid by New Jersey taxpayers.