The lawyer representing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s office in probes over deliberate traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge withdrew from unrelated litigation involving the span’s operator, a move that may have avoided a potential conflict of interest.
Randy Mastro leads a legal team coordinating Christie’s response to probes by state lawmakers and U.S. prosecutors into the closing of access lanes to the bridge from Sept. 9 to 12 in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The borough’s Democratic mayor has said allies of Christie, a Republican, created the gridlock to punish him for not endorsing the governor’s re-election last fall.
Mastro, 57, will no longer defend the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge, against separate claims that it illegally raised tolls for the span and other facilities in 2011, according to a Feb. 20 filing in Manhattan federal court. The filing gave no reason for his withdrawal.
State lawmakers are examining the role of two of Christie’s top appointees at the Port Authority in the lane closures. Both have resigned from the agency.
“A lawyer should only owe a duty to one client or the other but not both,” said Ronald Chen, acting dean of the Rutgers School of Law-Newark in New Jersey. “The potential for conflict arises when you have two different clients whose legal positions might be in conflict with each other.”
Lawyers are obligated to police their own conflicts, and don’t have to say publicly why they leave a case. Mastro didn’t immediately respond to phone and e-mail messages for comment.
Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Mastro’s law firm, will continue to represent the Port Authority in the tolls case. Two of his colleagues, Debra Yang and Alexander Southwell, also withdrew.
Yang was the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles and Southwell worked as a federal prosecutor in New York. They are working with Mastro on the Christie case. Emily Carhart, a spokeswoman for the law firm, didn’t immediately return an e-mail seeking comment.
Chen said Mastro owed legal duties to the Port Authority in the tolls case and to Christie’s office in the lane-closures probe. In representing Christie’s office, he could potentially learn of facts or documents that he would have to disclose to the Port Authority, Chen said.
“He has a duty of loyalty to the Port Authority to tell them about evidence that is in their interest to learn,” Chen said. “But in representing Governor Christie, he has a duty to keep that information confidential.”
That could present a conflict of interest, Chen said.
The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the authority’s lawyers said in a letter to Gibson Dunn that Mastro’s representation of Christie’s office is a potential conflict, citing a person familiar with the matter. A spokesman for the firm told the newspaper that the two representations posed no conflict.
Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law and a legal ethics expert, said he saw two possible explanations for the withdrawal of Mastro from the tolls case.
One was no conflict exists at all, and the Port Authority “has simply chosen to work with other lawyers at the firm, perhaps because it feels that Mastro shouldn’t have accepted the work for the Christie administration,” he said. “It has said as much.”
Gibson Dunn’s continued work on the tolls case “suggests that there is no conflict because if there were a conflict, under the ethics rules for lawyers, it would affect the entire firm. Under the rules, every lawyer’s client-conflict is imputed to every other firm lawyer.”
The other possibility, Gillers said, is that while no conflict was present at the start of Mastro’s representation of Christie’s office, one may have emerged.
“It would be speculative to say what that conflict might be,” Gillers said. “But if a conflict did emerge, then the only way the firm could continue to represent the Port Authority on the tolls matter is with its informed consent.”
One condition of such consent might have been that other Gibson Dunn lawyers would work on the matter only if Mastro and his team were “screened off” from the case, Gillers said.
Mastro is conducting an internal investigation of the lane closures, and is charging $650 an hour. Christie, who denies wrongdoing, fired a deputy chief of staff and cut ties to his campaign manager over their role in the closures.