New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has spent more than $50 million since the start of 2013 on lawyers outside his administration, largely because of costs related to the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal.
The administration has billed $22 million this year, according to a person familiar with the costs who wasn’t authorized to provide the information. Spending on outside counsel last year reached $29 million, the most since at least 2005, the earliest information available, according to Lee Moore, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office.
Billings related directly to the bridge scandal exceeded $7 million as of mid-August, according to information released at that time by acting Attorney General John Hoffman’s office.
News about this year’s legal bills was reported earlier by the Wall Street Journal. Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie, declined to comment when asked about them yesterday in Trenton.
The firm with most of the billing hours, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, in March released a 360-page report that concluded Christie had no prior knowledge of intentionally caused tie-ups at the bridge’s approach in Fort Lee in September 2013. The mayor there failed to endorse Christie’s re-election.
Christie, who won a second term in November, has denied that he played any role in the lane closings. Questions of who ordered the jam and why have hurt Christie’s approval ratings and tarnished his prospects for a 2016 White House run. The closings also are being investigated by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman.
In other states, governors facing investigations haven’t had taxpayers pay for outside counsel.
Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, a Republican accused of trading favors for $170,000 in gifts, has covered his own legal bills with a specially chartered defense fund. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, accused of improperly coordinating spending by outside groups with his campaign, has used political funds to pay about $1 million since 2011.
McDonnell, former chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and his wife are charged with a 14-count indictment that includes conspiracy, honest-services fraud and making false statements. Jurors are now deliberating in his case.
McDonnell’s legal team has been paid through the Richmond-based Restoration Fund established to cover the costs through donations.
“It really was set up by people who’ve known him for 20 or 30 years and know him as a man of character and thought really that indictment was completely out of bounds and not in his character,” said Jason Miyares, a spokesman for the fund.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, donors include Republican 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who gave $10,000, and coal magnate Richard Baxter Gilliam, who gave $50,000, the single largest donation.
According to VPAP, the fund raised $242,136 through June 30, and had paid out $168,508.
Walker’s spending has pushed the use of political money to pay legal fees to new heights in Wisconsin, McCabe said.
“We’d seen it before but certainly not at this level,” McCabe said in an interview. “And that’s only what is publicly visible.”
In New Jersey, Moore said, the state hires outside attorneys when special expertise is needed or for legal actions outside the state. When the firms are retained, a request for proposals is issued with the needed qualifications to keep politics at arm’s length, he said in an e-mail.
Moore cited one case in which settlements over pollution in the Passaic River yielded more than the firm billed.
“Clearly, the money spent on outside counsel in the Passaic River matter was a sound investment on behalf of New Jersey citizens,” Moore said. “Sometimes it takes money to make money.”
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