Governor Chris Christie’s campaign won approval from New Jersey election regulators to use donations to cover the organization’s legal costs stemming from investigations of intentional traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge.
The campaign has been subpoenaed by both the state Assembly and federal prosecutors, and yesterday’s action by the Election Law Enforcement Commission in Trenton will allow it to gather and deliver documents for about 40 employees, according to Mark Sheridan, a Newark attorney for the campaign.
Elected officials have used campaign accounts to pay legal bills before. U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, reported fees as the House in 2010 censured him for a series of ethics violations. Then-Senator John Ensign, a Nevada Republican, used his campaign committee to pay legal bills as he faced his own ethics allegations in 2011, leading to his resignation in May.
New Jersey election Commissioner Amos Saunders said yesterday that donors to Christie should know where their money is going. He suggested that fundraising letters make clear that the money is being used to pay legal bills.
“I’m still troubled by a blank check over which we have no control,” Saunders said.
Legal expenses have led to trouble for several state politicians. The commission in December sued ex-state Senator Joseph Coniglio, a Democrat, claiming he illegally spent $140,000 from his campaign to fight federal criminal charges. Ex-Newark Mayor Sharpe James in 2012 was ordered by a court to repay $94,000 in campaign funds he accessed for his own federal criminal trial.
John Catsimatidis, a Christie donor and the billionaire owner of Red Apple Group Inc., said that because most politicians aren’t independently wealthy, he sees legal costs as a valid expense.
“There’s plenty of politicians who would do it and don’t even ask permission,” said Catsimatidis, who sought the Republican nomination for New York mayor last year. “I like the fact that he asked instead of just doing it.”
Bill Allison, the editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that tracks campaign spending and lobbying, said the intent of donations should be respected.
“Campaign funds are to win elections,” he said. “It’s kind of a misdirection of money.”
The investigations of the bridge have been Christie’s greatest political challenge and threaten to derail a possible 2016 presidential run.
“The last six weeks haven’t been the most enjoyable of my life, I can guarantee you,” Christie said yesterday during a speech at the Economic Club of Chicago. He has had to get used to some in his party shunning him. Yesterday, five weeks before a primary for Illinois governor, only one of four Republicans chose to be photographed with Christie.
In his remarks, Christie went on the offensive, challenging some in his own party on what Republicans should stand for.
“Political parties were formed in order to win elections, not to be debating societies, not to be academic institutions to debate the great esoteric issues of the day,” Christie said at the Economic Club of Chicago. “When you win, you get to govern. When you get to govern, you get to make change.”
Christie was running for re-election at the time of the lane closings, Sept. 9 to 12. He raised $13.5 million for the November vote, including $8.2 million of public matching funds, and ended the campaign with a balance of $361,720. The organization has $126,608 of cash on hand, according to the letter from Sheridan, the campaign lawyer.
All the public money has been disbursed and no more will come, according to Joseph Donohue, deputy director of the commission. That means that taxpayers won’t be on the hook for the campaign’s legal bills.
The governor’s office itself is also the subject of state and federal subpoenas and has agreed to pay $650 an hour for representation by Randy Mastro, a partner in the New York law office of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP.
Christie, a 51-year-old Republican, won a second term on Nov. 5, beating his Democratic challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono, by 22 percentage points.
Christie has said he knew nothing about jams on the world’s busiest span that backed up traffic in Fort Lee, whose Democratic mayor hadn’t joined colleagues who crossed party lines to endorse him. The governor’s office, re-election campaign and 18 individuals were ordered last month to turn over documents and communications related to the scandal.
The joint Assembly-Senate committee yesterday authorized another round of subpoenas for the governor’s office and campaign, plus staff members and officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation who lacked authorization to speak and requested anonymity.
Sheridan said a subpoena to the campaign sought information related to testimony from Bill Baroni, the Christie-appointed authority deputy executive director who resigned in December, and Mark Sokolich, the Fort Lee mayor.
Christie’s spending in a variety of arenas has attracted scrutiny. The inspector general of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development already is auditing his expenditure of $25 million in federal disaster aid on an election-year ad campaign featuring him and his family urging tourists to return to the New Jersey shore as rebuilding was under way.
Allison said the campaign spending is part of a pattern.
“Just like the Hurricane Sandy money he was spending to promote himself, this is another way of using a source of money to promote his political future that’s not what it’s intended for,” he said.