Right now, the major media is all a-twitter about President Trump seeking legal advice on whether he can pardon himself and his family. It appears so desperate and it is really so unnecessary. All he needs to do is study Governor Chris Christie’s comportment during Bridgegate to learn how to avoid justice, while a whole cast of characters involved in a criminal conspiracy can avoid jail time and go about their lives–and even prosper.
If the media’s worried that President Trump might undo the rule of law, they should know Bridgegate is a great example of how–in New Jersey–that kind of undoing has been well underway for a while. The takeaway from Bridgegate is that the higher up the food chain you are, the less likely it will be that you are ever held responsible for your actions.
So much has happened since, that it’s important to recall actually what went down almost four years ago. To exact partisan revenge against a mayor, a criminal plot was executed to snarl traffic at the approach to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey, for four days in September 2013—which included the actual anniversary of 9/11 and the first day of school. As a consequence, first-responders were seriously impeded from doing their jobs, even as Governor Christie’s office and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ignored their desperate pleas for help.
This was all accomplished under the command and control of the Port Authority Police, a para-military organization controlled by an unelected Board of Commissioners, during a period when security experts say the region needs to be most mindful of a potential terrorist attack on a major landmark—and not distracted by settling petty scores.
For the remainder of his 2013 re-election campaign–and until January of 2014–Governor Christie continued to reiterate that the lane closures were part of a legitimate traffic study, a contention that federal prosecutors subsequently proved in court was being used by the charged conspirators as a cover-up.
With the sentencing earlier this month of the admitted Bridgegate mastermind, David Wildstein–who got no jail time, but received three years’ probation and a few months of community service–the Department of Justice closed the books on the case. Earlier this year William E. Baroni, Jr., former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, was sentenced to 24 months in prison; and Bridget Anne Kelly, former deputy chief of staff to Governor Christie and single mother of four, got 19 months.
Meanwhile, Governor Christie–who federal prosecutors alleged knew in real-time about the lane closures and his staff’s ignoring of Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s alarm about the public safety fallout–has been taking time to rest on the beach and pursue a try-out as a radio sports jock on WFAN.
At trial, Mr. Wildstein–the man that federal prosecutors said at his sentencing had offered “timely, complete and truthful cooperation”–testified that the Governor was told about the Fort Lee lane closures on their third day, at a 9/11 memorial service at the World Trade Center.
Christie’s former re-election campaign manager, Bill Stepien–who Christie fired in January 2014 along with Ms. Kelly for his role in the scandal, and who also took the Fifth Amendment in response to an inquiry by the New Jersey legislative committee into Bridgegate–is now the Trump White House’s political director.
Meanwhile, in a parallel and disconnected universe, David Samson–the former chairman of the Board of Commissioners of the Port Authority, who was at the heart of Bridgegate–was sentenced to just 12 months of home confinement for his successful shake-down of United Airlines, to institute a non-stop flight from Newark to South Carolina for his personal benefit (to get to his vacation home) in exchange for advancing the airline’s issues on the bi-state agenda. Samson, a former NJ Attorney General and close confidant of Governor Christie, was a central figure in the behind-the-scenes efforts by Christie loyalists to keep a lid on the Bridgegate scandal that broke in September 2013, when the Governor’s 2013 re-election bid was in full swing.
Samson refused to be interviewed by Randy Mastro, the Gibson, Dunn &Crutcher lawyer that Governor Christie had hired to conduct a multimillion-dollar taxpayer-funded internal review–widely considered to be a self-serving effort at damage control, while Christie pursued his presidential bid. Samson’s plea deal did not include having to testify about what he knew and when he knew it regarding the Bridgegate scandal.
And thanks to the glacial pace of now former US Attorney (NJ) Paul Fishman’s prosecution of Samson, there was time enough for his partners at Wolf & Samson to rename the Christie-connected firm, “Chiesa, Shahinian & Giantomasi,” before the former Attorney General was sentenced. United Airlines’ CEO Jeff Smisek, was never charged for bribing Samson, but was forced to resign. But he didn’t leave emptied handed getting close to $37 million as a platinum parachute, while maintaining his flight benefits, parking privileges and company car.
Former US Attorney Paul Fishman, who lost his job as part of President Trump’s mass-firing of US Attorneys, was named a Distinguished Visiting Fellow by the Seton Hall Law School. In a recent wide-ranging interview with The Star-Ledger, he addressed the criticisms that his Bridgegate prosecution was actually too narrow in scope. “Any time the prosecutor’s office doesn’t go up high enough, the public is disappointed,” he told the Star-Ledger, as in the case of enforcement actions against Wall Street banks that never led to the charging of senior leadership. “But not everything people do that is unseemly or unethical is punishable by criminal law,” he noted.
In addition to Bridgegate’s marquee names, federal prosecutors compiled two lists of individuals involved in Bridgegate, which defense lawyers saw, but the public will never see. Back in April 2015, in the original Wildstein, Baroni and Kelly charging documents, prosecutors flagged the first group as “unindicted co-conspirators” involved with the execution of the conspiracy. Several media organizations went to court to have the names released, saying that it was in the public’s interest to know who else was involved with the Bridgegate affair.
Judge Susan Wigenton, the federal judge presiding over the case, ruled that the list should be publicly released, but that it should be limited to elected and appointed public officials. Fishman appealed that ruling, as did an individual whose name was on the list but was only known as John Doe. The lawyer for Doe claimed the client, one of the un-indicted co-conspirators, would suffer irredeemable reputational damage if the list were released.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in Philadelphia, sided with Fishman and John Doe and ordered that the list remain sealed. “The court, with all due respect, focused on privacy concerns and, in the process, emasculated a decision they had previously made 30 years ago that would have given the public access to this list,” Brice Rosen, the lawyer representing the news media, told me at the time.
When I asked US Attorney Fishman at the May 2015 press conference about this unnamed crew, he explained that 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.”
In May 2016, prosecutors admitted to having the second list of unnamed individuals who “were aware of the alleged criminal conspiracy charged in this case, but did not join in.” That list never surfaced either.
Several questions remain unanswered, while the memories of Bridgegate are blown away by the tumult of our current national scandals:
– So, who are on these lists? Are the lists just the size of a church choir or bigger than two baseball teams?
– What was the actual role of the Port Authority police–entrusted with protecting the George Washington Bridge–in executing the lane closures that prosecutors proved was a criminal conspiracy? How was one of its most critical assets commandeered for four days by people who, prosecutors alleged, had criminal intent in gaining control over the traffic operations of the George Washington Bridge?
As it turns out, the Port Authority’s weakest link were leaders in its own police department. Senior police officers were aware of the plan to redirect traffic before it happened; and when rank-and-file officers raised concerns about the problems it was causing, they were told to keep it to themselves. In September 2014, The Record reported that, during the lane closures in 2013, when Port Authority police officers used their radios to communicate that the altered traffic pattern was creating “hazardous conditions” on local Fort Lee roads, their Port Authority supervisors told them to “shut up.”
Amid the lane closures, which crippled his city and ruined the first day of school for Fort Lee’s school children, Mayor Mark Sokolich appealed via email for Baroni’s help. “Adding insult to injury, many members of the public have indicated to me that, in response to their complaints, the Port Authority officers are advising commuters that this recent traffic debacle is the result of a decision that I–as the Mayor–made,” Sokolich wrote to Baroni.
During the first day of the closures, a Port Authority community relations official warned (then board chairman) Wildstein that the lane closures were affecting the abilities of (1) local police to handle a missing child case, and (2) EMS to handle a cardiac-arrest response. In a text on Day 2 (September 10th), Kelly expressed regret for the impact of the schoolchildren caught in the traffic jam; and Wildstein responded cynically, “they are the children of Buono voters.” That would be former state senator Barbara Buono, Christie’s 2013 opponent.
Port Authority Police Department members’ names even surfaced in what prosecutors allege was the subsequent criminal conspiracy to cover up the initial lane-closure plot. In November 2013, Baroni testified before the state Legislature that the concept of the traffic study was first raised by Port Authority Police Benevolent Association president Paul Nunziato. In 2014, The New York Times reported that Nunziatio and Wildstein had met regularly from 2012, leading up to Nunziato delivering the endorsement from his 1,500-member union for Christie’s 2013 re-election. (Incidentally, under Christie’s tutelage, the ranks of the Port Authority Police grew from 1500 to 2000 by March 2014.)
When Nunziato took questions from reporters after a December 2014 Port Authority commissioners’ meeting, he reaffirmed that he had originated the George Washington Bridge/Fort Lee traffic study. A month earlier, the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association president had stated that the speculation that political maneuvering was behind the George Washington Bridge lane closures was like speculating on the possible location of Jimmy Hoffa’s body.
Nunziato’s lawyer, Charles J. Sciarra, later told The New York Times that his client had nothing to do with the closures. “My client was trying to be supportive of people who were supportive of his union; he never intended to mislead.”
In 2012, long before Bridgegate, The New York Times reported that the Port Authority had become sufficiently concerned about its Police Department’s ability to police itself, that it removed the jurisdiction for internal affairs issues from the Department and reassigned it to the bi-state agency’s independent Inspector General. The Times reported that the move came after the agency had found that the internal affairs division had failed to follow up on serious allegations of cheating on promotional exams.
In February 2014, the New York Daily News reported that a high-ranking Port Authority police officer, who had driven Mr. Wildstein around to inspect the damage wrought during the lane closures, was the subject of an internal Port Authority investigation in connection with the Bridgegate affair; but nothing has been announced publicly since then.
At the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland–when Governor Christie led the crowd in “lock her up, lock her up,” referring to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–delegates probably had no idea just how much the Governor had in common with Secretary Clinton. They had a lot in common, when it came to using private communications (like texts and emails) to conduct government business and, in the process, looping their top aides into the dubious practice.
Both New Jersey and the United States have rather robust laws crafted to promote official document retention, as well as government accountability and transparency for the public and the press. The federal Freedom of Information Act (1996) and New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (2002) were both rooted in the core democratic principle that government had an obligation to retain its records documenting its deliberations and that the public had a right to access them.
While, tactically, the decision by Secretary Clinton to maintain an iron grip on her electronic communications gave her exclusive control over them, it fixated the political debate on her past behavior and what–if anything–she might be hiding, rather than on what kind of future President she might have been.
In contrast, Governor Christie’s deletion of a string of text exchanges he had with top aide Regina Egea, on December 9, 2013–at the height of the Bridgegate intrigue–has been under-reported. WNYC reported the deletions were missed entirely by outside counsel, Randy Mastro, retained by Christie for the internal “investigation” into Bridgegate.
At the time of the generation of the now-disappeared text exchanges, Egea was monitoring what turned out to be the blockbuster testimony by Port Authority officials in front of the state’s legislative committee investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closures.
Under oath, Egea told a legislative panel that she had texted the Governor once during that explosive Port Authority testimony, but said she could not recall if the Governor responded. The AT&T metadata obtained by the legislative committee shows not just one text, but a dozen exchanges between the Governor and Egea.
While the Mastro report was used by Governor Christie as proof of his innocence, the report did call out the alleged GW Bridge plotters for using their personal email and texts “in order to conceal their acts.” Moreover, Mastro noted that his investigation showed “that the use of personal email accounts to conduct and discuss official government business was fairly routine” at the highest levels of the Christie Administration.
“The use of personal email accounts and electronic communications presents a host of legal and practical challenges,” the Mastro report asserted. Such practices, Mastro warned, “could circumvent OPRA” and would “risk breach of security and confidentiality.”
Ed Barocas, legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, says the use of private email and texts by state officials conducting state business remains “contrary to the spirit of our Open Records Act,” and can’t help but result in “violations of the Act and public record-retention requirements.”
“Having public officials use private emails puts archivists and keepers of the public record who are responsible for responding to open record requests in a very difficult position because they have no way of knowing what these officials are doing,” says Adam Marshall, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Can you imagine Washington or Jefferson saying lets burn these years of records?” asks Marshall. “When people don’t have access to what’s going on, they lose faith in the government.”
Last year, to bolster their case, the lawyers for the Bridgegate defendants were looking for the private cell phone that Governor Christie had used when he was texting with Ms. Egea. At a press conference at the time, Governor 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 was only one problem–the government did not have it. In response to a query, a spokesman for US Attorney Fishman said, contrary to Governor Christie’s statement, that 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.”
In December 2015, Judge Wigenton, who was trying the Bridgegate case, issued a ruling sharply criticizing the Gibson Dunn firm for intentionally failing to preserve documentation of the more than 70 interviews it conducted in preparing its Bridgegate report (that cost taxpayers $10 million).
“The taxpayers of the State of New Jersey paid [Gibson Dunn] millions of dollars to conduct a transparent and thorough investigation. What they got instead was opacity and gamesmanship,” Wigenton wrote. “They deserve better.”
As it turns out, Gibson Dunn did not have the cell phone either. It was in the possession of Christopher Wray, who was Governor Christie’s private attorney. Yes, that would be the same Christopher Wray nominated by President Trump to be the new FBI Director.
Governor Christie has always been ahead of the curve. He never worried for a moment that he might need to pardon himself. In New Jersey, the right lawyers will take care of that for you.