A report commissioned by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie blamed former aides and allies for a four-day traffic jam that imperils his possible presidential bid, while portraying him as a decisive chief executive seeking the truth.
Christie had no prior knowledge of lane closings at the George Washington Bridge that snarled traffic in Fort Lee, New Jersey, according to the internal review released yesterday by the law firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP. Bridget Anne Kelly, once a deputy chief of staff for the governor, and David Wildstein, who worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge, bore the blame for targeting Fort Lee’s mayor, for unspecified “ulterior motives,” according to the report.
The lane shutdowns were “inexplicably stupid,” Christie, 51, said yesterday in an interview with ABC’s “World News With Diane Sawyer,” after release of the 360-page review.
The report’s conclusions, following interviews with Christie and about 70 others, offer new details about traffic tie-ups from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12 that spawned a criminal probe, a state legislative inquiry and dealt a blow to Christie’s popularity as he weighs a Republican run for the White House in 2016.
“Our findings today are a vindication of Governor Christie and what he said all along -- that he had no knowledge of this lane realignment beforehand and no involvement in that decision,” Randy Mastro, a partner in Gibson Dunn, said yesterday at a news conference in his midtown Manhattan office.
Mastro said his team doesn’t know why Kelly and Wildstein shut two of three bridge approach lanes through Fort Lee, delaying traffic for hours each day. Both declined to be interviewed by the law firm for the report.
Kelly sent an Aug. 13 e-mail to Wildstein that said: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein, who ordered the lanes closed, replied: “Got it.”
While the pair wanted to harm Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, it wasn’t because he failed to endorse Christie’s re-election last November, Mastro said. Sokolich has said he believes the tie-up was political payback for his lack of support.
Christie, who said he’s had trouble sleeping since the scandal broke, told ABC News the report exonerated him. No one had any reason to believe the traffic jams would please him, the governor said.
“I obviously didn’t make it clear enough to these folks that this kind of stuff is unacceptable,” Christie said. “This is an abuse of the trust, of the authority that was granted to you. And that’s unacceptable. To the extent that anyone didn’t know that -- believe me, from this day forward, everyone will know that.”
In addition to Kelly and Wildstein, Gibson Dunn was unable to interview William Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager, and William Baroni, once the governor’s top appointee at the Port Authority, about their roles in the matter. Wildstein, Kelly and Stepien have asserted their constitutional right against self-incrimination in the legislative probe of the lane closings. Sokolich also declined to be interviewed, as did Port Authority Chairman David Samson.
Other investigations by federal prosecutors or state lawmakers may determine “what really motivated this plan,” Gibson Dunn concluded.
State Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the Democratic co-chairman of a joint Senate and Assembly panel examining the closures, said the report was defective and rushed to exonerate Christie. Gibson Dunn is billing the state $650 an hour.
“Lawyers hired and paid for by the Christie administration will not be the final word on this matter,” Wisniewski told reporters. “The people of New Jersey need a full accounting.”
Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat and co-chairwoman of the 12-member legislative panel, said the report failed to answer key questions, including the motive. Taxpayers got “not very much” for what she said was a $1 million report. Its conclusions furnished Christie an explanation akin, she said, to “The dog ate my homework.”
The report offered new insights into Christie’s inner circle, while painting the governor as pressing for the truth even as Kelly lied to his chief of staff and sought to destroy an incriminating e-mail as the scandal gained momentum.
Pressure on Christie over the closures grew in December. At a dinner on Dec. 4, Wildstein told Christie’s press secretary, Michael Drewniak, that he discussed the lane closures with the governor at a ceremony on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to the report.
Christie didn’t recall such a reference, “and, even if actually made, would not have registered with the governor in any event because he knew nothing about this decision in advance and would not have considered another traffic issue at one of the bridges or tunnels to be memorable,” according to the report.
“I don’t have any recollection of him saying anything,” Christie said in the ABC interview, referring to Wildstein. “I’ll tell you what he didn’t say: He didn’t say, ‘By the way, governor, I’m closing down some lanes on the George Washington Bridge to stick it to the mayor. Is that OK?’ That I would remember.”
Wildstein and Baroni resigned in December. Christie fired Kelly in January, when he also cut ties with Stepien. Mastro said Stepien and Baroni were aware of the lane closures yet had “no knowledge of an ulterior motive.”
“There is simply no support for the notion, implied by his summary banishment, that Mr. Stepien was somehow blameworthy in this incident,” his attorney, Kevin Marino, said of the report yesterday in a statement. “He was not.”
The governor, a second-term Republican whose approval ratings slid because of the controversy, handed over his iPhone and provided access to government and personal e-mail accounts. Mastro said Christie was interviewed several times.
On Dec. 12, Christie’s chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, grilled Kelly about her knowledge of the closures, the report said. That night, she asked a subordinate, Christina Renna, to delete an e-mail that Kelly sent on Sept. 12, when Sokolich called to say he was “extremely upset.” Kelly wrote: “Good.”
Mastro said Kelly’s actions were those of “somebody trying to cover up their misconduct from the chief of staff and the governor.”
On Dec. 13, Christie called a meeting of senior staff where he said he was concerned aides were suffering from “senior-itis” after the November election. He warned them that the media could train a “searchlight” on the administration. “This is a mess, and now I have to clean it up,” he said.
“Members of senior staff commented that it seemed clear from the governor’s words and demeanor that he had no involvement in or knowledge of the lane realignment,” according to the report.
The report found that Kelly and Stepien had a “personal relationship” in the summer of 2013 that Stepien ended, and the two then barely spoke.
“That fact may have affected how Kelly and Stepien conducted themselves and whether they communicated about the lane realignment,” it said.
The links between Christie’s inner circle and the tie-ups came to light in a cache of e-mails and text messages made public on Jan. 8. That afternoon, Christie met his top aides and advisers at Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion, Gibson Dunn reported.
“It was an emotional session, in which the governor, welling up with tears, expressed shock at the revelations, directed Kelly’s immediate firing for lying to him, and also decided to sever ties with Stepien,” according to the report.
The report also sought to discredit claims by Dawn Zimmer, the Democratic mayor of Hoboken, who said Christie’s administration threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy aid if she didn’t back a real-estate project. Zimmer, who was interviewed by federal prosecutors, didn’t talk to Gibson Dunn.
“Mayor Zimmer’s allegations are unsubstantiated and, in material respects, demonstrably false,” according to the report. Zimmer, in a response e-mailed by her spokesman, called the findings a “one-sided whitewash.”
Christie told ABC he wouldn’t let the bridge episode affect a decision on whether to seek the White House.
“I don’t intend to make a decision on 2016 until a year from now,” Christie said. “But it won’t have anything to do with the last 10 weeks. What’s happened in the last 10 weeks, I think, ultimately will make me a better leader, whether it’s as governor of New Jersey or in any other job I might take in the public or private sector.”