The search to find which aides to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge, and why, is drawing top lawyers experienced in prosecuting or defending politicians, mobsters and the insider trader with the longest U.S. prison term.
The Republican governor’s office said yesterday it hired Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP to respond to a federal inquiry into lane closures that brought traffic to a standstill four days beginning Sept. 9 in Fort Lee, at the New Jersey end of the bridge to New York. Randy Mastro, a former deputy mayor of New York City under Rudolph Giuliani, leads the team.
The state Assembly signed up Reid Schar, 51, a former federal prosecutor in the corruption trials of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Bridget Anne Kelly, 41, a deputy chief of staff fired by Christie, is going with Walter Timpone, whom Christie once nominated to be his second-in-command when he was the U.S. attorney for New Jersey.
The scandal that threatens to tarnish the 51-year-old Christie’s possible run for the White House in 2016 will be full of expensive lawyers whispering advice about how to field questions from lawmakers, what to say to those government agents and why rolling over on the boss can be the smart play.
“I would call it high pressure and high stakes for the lawyers, and certainly their clients,” said Darren Gelber, president of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey. “There are political issues and careers at stake, and it’s all playing out on a statewide, and to some extent, a national platform.”
Representing political figures poses special challenges, said Robert Bennett, a Washington attorney who defended former U.S. President Bill Clinton against allegations of sexual harassment.
“You have to deal with staff people, political consultants, campaign advisers, a whole universe of people who feel they have an interest in the matter,” said Bennett of Hogan Lovells. “It can be very difficult and challenging to maintain control of the situation.”
Christie has the most to lose. He’s seen as a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Last week, he fired Kelly and jettisoned his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, after e-mails and texts showed they played a role in closing two access lanes to the bridge, perhaps to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who didn’t back Christie’s re-election bid last fall.
Christie, who secured more than 100 corruption convictions of public officials when he was U.S. attorney from 2002 to 2008, told reporters on Jan. 9 that he was “embarrassed and humiliated” and felt “betrayed” and “heartbroken.”
That day, attorney Alan Zegas sat beside David Wildstein, a Christie ally at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge, during questioning about the closures by a state Assembly committee. Wildstein, who resigned last month, asserted his privilege against self-incrimination.
Zegas previously represented attorney Matthew Kluger, who stole corporate merger tips from four law firms in a 17-year insider trading scheme that generated $37 million in illegal profit. In 2012, Kluger was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison, the longest term ever for insider trading.
Schar will be special counsel to the Democratic-led Assembly, which is probing Christie’s allies and appointees. Under former Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, Schar prosecuted Blagojevich, who served as Illinois governor from 2003 until 2009, when he was impeached and removed from office by lawmakers.
Blagojevich 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.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, 51, a Democrat leading one of two legislative probes, said yesterday that Schar, a partner at the Chicago law firm Jenner & Block LLP, will be paid from the Assembly’s budget. In a letter to the Assembly yesterday, Jenner & Block agreed to fees of $350 an hour for partners and $300 an hour for non-partners.
Kelly has hired Walter Timpone, another former federal prosecutor, according to people familiar with the matter who weren’t authorized to discuss the case. Timpone sent crooked politicians to prison and worked as an in-house prosecutor for the Laborers International Union of North America, helping to remove almost 40 mobsters from New Jersey locals.
Christie nominated Timpone in 2002 to be his top deputy in the U.S. attorney’s office. Timpone withdrew from consideration after the Justice Department reviewed the circumstances of a meeting he had at the home of former U.S. Senator Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat who was under investigation in connection with his personal and campaign finances.
Torricelli ultimately faced no criminal charges and didn’t seek re-election in 2002 after the Senate Ethics Committee admonished him for taking gifts from a donor.
Timpone, now at McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter LLP, later represented the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, a state-owned hospital in Newark. Timpone helped the hospital make reforms to avoid prosecution by Christie on charges of double-billing the federal Medicaid insurance program.
Stepien, the former campaign manager, hired Kevin Marino of Marino, Tortorella & Boyle in Chatham, New Jersey, according to the people.
Last year, Marino helped New York-based Morgan Stanley secure a $10 million restitution order against Joseph “Chip” Skowron, a former hedge-fund manager in prison for insider trading. The bank has sued Skowron, who managed Morgan Stanley’s FrontPoint Partners LLC, seeking to recover $33 million it paid to U.S. regulators and $32 million it paid him.
Marino also represents former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. computer programmer Sergey Aleynikov, who was convicted in federal court in New York of stealing confidential source code from the company and later had his conviction overturned. He still faces New York state charges.
Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director at the Port Authority who resigned last month, has hired Michael Himmel of Lowenstein Sandler in Roseland, New Jersey, according to the people.
For the governor’s office, Gibson Dunn will conduct an internal review over the lane closures and respond to the probe by Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney in New Jersey, as well as “other appropriate inquiries and requests for information,” Christie’s office said in a statement.
The firm will “review best practices for office operations and information flow, and assist with document retention and production,” according to the statement. “Their presence will bring an outside, third-party perspective to the situation.”
Christie, who made his first public appearance yesterday since his annual State of the State speech on Jan. 14, spoke to victims of Hurricane Sandy in Stafford Township.
“Nothing will distract me from getting that job done,” he said. He didn’t mention the bridge matter directly, though he noted the job comes with “all kinds of challenges, as you know, that come out of nowhere to test you.”
Colin Reed, a spokesman for Christie, declined to comment on the rate that Gibson Dunn will be paid or the terms of its engagement. Mastro, Himmel, Marino, Timpone and Zegas didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment.
Bennett, asked for comment, said he has a mounted brown trout with an open mouth on his office wall. The inscription “If I kept my mouth shut, I wouldn’t be on this wall,” appears under the fish.
“That is easier to sell to someone who is not a high-profile person or a politician who feels they have to say something in public,” Bennett said. “Successful politicians have gotten where they are by convincing people that they’re right on a whole variety of issues.”