An Independent Commission Should Conduct an Inquest of the Bridgegate Conduct of Justice Walter Timpone

Former EPA Regional Administrator Alan J. Steinberg says that an independent commission should be formed to investigate allegations made by convicted Bridgegate co-defendant Bridget Anne Kelly about serious misconduct in office both by current New Jersey Supreme Court Associate Justice Walter Timpone and high-ranking officials in former governor Chris Christie's administration.

Last Thursday night, Bridget Anne Kelly, a convicted co-defendant in the Bridgegate case, appeared on the MSNBC Rachel Maddow television show and made serious allegations regarding current New Jersey Supreme Court Associate Justice Walter Timpone.  Specifically, she described the brief period of time in which Timpone represented Kelly, the circumstances under which Timpone had come to represent her, and the communications between them which took place between his undertaking of the representation and his withdrawal. 

Prior to the show last Thursday night, Timpone’s brief representation of Kelly had been a matter of public record, as had been his status as the Vice Chair of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) appointed by former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  At the time he withdrew as Kelly’s attorney in early 2014, Timpone cited his ELEC position as creating a conflict of interest barring his continued representation of her. 

In her appearance on the Maddow show last Thursday night, however, Kelly for the first time in a television public news interview made the following additional factual claims: 

1) It was Timpone who at the time of the release in January, 2014 of her infamous email, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”initially solicited Kelly to be her attorney, not vice versa. 

2) When Timpone first contacted her, she raised the issue of his ELEC vice chair status as creating a conflict of interest on his part, barring his representation of her.  He said it would not be a problem. 

3) When Timpone approached Kelly to represent her, he implied that he was acting at the suggestion of Michelle Brown, Christie’s appointed CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) and a member of Christie’s unofficial “kitchen cabinet.” 

4) Timpone advised Kelly two weeks after their initial meeting that he was withdrawing as her attorney due to his conflict as the ELEC Vice Chair. 

At this point, one cannot assess the credibility of Bridget Anne Kelly as to her claims against Timpone.  Neither can her credibility be dismissed, however. 

If Kelly’s claims are sustained under scrutiny, they would constitute allegations of most serious unethical conduct, warranting Timpone’s immediate resignation from the Supreme Court, despite the fact that his mandatory retirement is scheduled for November, 2020. 

And Kelly’s allegations of conversations between Timpone and Michele Brown raise most serious concerns about possible abuses of power in the Governor’s Office of Chris Christie.  Did Timpone relay to Brown the contents of any conversations he had with Kelly?  If so, did Brown further relay to former Governor Christie himself this information? 

All this would constitute serious misconduct in office both by Timpone and high-ranking officials in the Christie administration.  At this point, one cannot assess the conflicting credibilities of Kelly, Timpone, and Brown.   

Yet the serious nature of the Kelly allegations makes it imperative that an independent three-person commission, consisting of retired Supreme Court Justices, be appointed by New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner to conduct a thoroughly independent inquest into Timpone’s conduct regarding Bridgegate.  Any actions of members of the Christie front office related to the allegations against Timpone should also become part of the inquest commission’s charge. 

The Timpone actions should not become the subject of an exclusive investigation by the State Assembly and/or Senate.  Regardless of the good intentions of the Assembly members and Senators involved, the findings either way of such an investigative committee, rightly or wrongly would be excoriated as having been motivated by partisan politics.  The same would be true of any investigative committee whose members are appointed by Governor Phil Murphy. 

Stuart Rabner is a New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice of the highest competence and integrity.  Any investigative commission of members appointed by him would attain instant legitimacy and credibility.  The commission should also be granted by the legislature both an adequate budget and subpoena power. 

It should also be noted that this commission should not focus at all on the appropriateness of the findings of guilt and sentence imposed on Bridget Anne Kelly.  The sole focus most be her legal representation by Walter Timpone and any related actions of Governor Christie’s front office. 

At stake here are not only issues of impropriety but also the appearance of impropriety.  All these issues call out for resolution as soon as possible and should not be left to the judgment of future New Jersey political and legal historians.  The appointment of a commission as recommended above is the appropriate means of resolving these questions now. 

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman. 

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