New Jersey lawmakers investigating political tricks that emanated from Governor Chris Christie’s office hired as special counsel the lead prosecutor in the corruption trials of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.
Reid Schar, a former assistant U.S. attorney, will aid the New Jersey Assembly’s investigation of the decision to close George Washington Bridge access lanes in September. While working under former Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, Schar was part of a team of prosecutors pursuing Blagojevich, adviser-fundraiser Antoin “Tony” Rezko and others accused of trying to profit from their political connections.
Democrats who control the New Jersey legislature are investigating the four-day traffic jam that paralyzed Fort Lee, a town of 35,700 at the end of the bridge to Manhattan whose Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, refused to endorse Christie in the November election. The intention was to punish the mayor, according to e-mails and text messages obtained by news organizations, including Bloomberg.
Lawmakers are seeking documents and holding hearings to discern whether Christie or other members of his administration had knowledge of the lane closures and whether they tried to cover it up. The governor maintains that he was “blindsided” by the revelations.
“This started out as an investigation into Port Authority operations and finances and now has led us into the governor’s office,” Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who’s leading the lower house probe, told reporters today in Trenton. “There are a lot of legal issues that we need to understand and work through very carefully.”
Christie last week fired a deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, 41, saying she had lied to him about whether anyone on his team was involved in the closures. During his annual State of the State speech yesterday, he again expressed regret for the traffic jam, saying, “Mistakes were made.”
The e-mails released include one from Kelly on Aug. 13 to David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge.
“Time for some traffic problems,” she wrote. He replied, “Got it.”
Wildstein resigned last month, along with Bill Baroni, Christie’s top executive appointee at the authority.
The matter is diverting the 51-year-old governor from focusing on his campaign promises as he prepares for the start of his second term next week, said Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who -- like Christie -- is a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate.
“It’s something that takes away from his ability to continue to push reform at the level that he wanted to, coming out of this recent election,” Walker told reporters yesterday in Washington. Christie beat his Democratic challenger, Barbara Buono, by 22 percentage points in November.
Christie also faces a federal investigation over his use of $25 million of Hurricane Sandy relief money for a commercial that featured him promoting tourism on the Jersey Shore. Democratic lawmakers said the “Stronger Than the Storm” ads gave Christie free publicity as he campaigned for a second term.
The inquiries have taken a toll on Christie’s public-approval ratings. Fifty-five percent of New Jersey voters approve of the job he is doing, down from 68 percent in July and his all-time high of 74 percent in February 2013, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today.
Christie, the first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997, attracted Democrats and independent voters with his leadership after Sandy struck in October 2012. In November 2013, he became the first Republican gubernatorial candidate to win more than 60 percent of the vote since Tom Kean in 1985.
Blagojevich served as Illinois governor from 2003 until 2009, when he was impeached and removed from office by lawmakers.
He was tried twice, with a jury convicting him on a single count of lying to federal agents and deadlocking on 23 other charges in 2010 and then finding the twice-elected Democrat guilty of 17 of 20 counts in a trial on a reduced number of charges in 2011. Blagojevich, who is serving a 14-year prison sentence, has appealed those outcomes.
Schar is now a partner at the Chicago law firm Jenner & Block LLP. The firm’s chairman, Anton Valukas, served as a U.S. Justice Department-appointed examiner of the downfall of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.
To contact the reporters on this story: Elise Young in Trenton at firstname.lastname@example.org; Terrence Dopp in Trenton at email@example.com; Andrew Harris in federal court in Chicago at firstname.lastname@example.org