Christie Lawyers Used ‘Opacity and Gamesmanship,’ Judge Saysby
Judge slams Gibson Dunn for conduct in bridge investigation
Kelly, Baroni lose bid for interview notes taken by lawyers
A law firm commissioned by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to investigate the George Washington Bridge scandal engaged in “opacity and gamesmanship” in producing its report, a federal judge said.
Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP failed to retain notes, transcripts and recordings of 75 witness interviews underpinning a report that exonerated Christie, a Republican running for the White House, in politically motivated lane closures at the bridge in September 2013, the judge wrote.
“This was a clever tactic, but when public investigations are involved, straightforward lawyering is superior to calculated strategy,” U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton said in a ruling Wednesday in federal court in Newark, New Jersey.
“The taxpayers of the state of New Jersey paid GDC millions of dollars to conduct a transparent and thorough investigation,” Wigenton wrote. “What they got instead was opacity and gamesmanship. They deserve better.”
The judge ruled in response to a request by two former Christie allies under indictment, Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly, who sought the materials to help their defense. Gibson Dunn sought to quash the subpoena, arguing that “no notes, transcripts and recordings of the witness interviews exist” separate from interview summaries the firm released to supplement its 360-page report made public March 27.
Wigenton dismissed the request by Baroni and Kelly, citing a letter by the lead Gibson Dunn attorney, Randy Mastro, who said the firm changed its normal practice of preserving interview notes of witnesses. Because of a legislative investigation and media interest, Mastro wrote, interviews were “summarized electronically by one attorney while the interviews were being conducted and then edited electronically into a single, final version.”
While Wigenton said she shares the frustration of Baroni and Kelly at the overwriting practice, she had “no basis to doubt the truth” of the firm’s representations that notes or drafts don’t exist.
She also denied a request by Baroni and Kelly for metadata that summarized the firm’s tracking and management of witness summaries. The judge said the defendants failed to show the data is relevant or will lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.
Mastro didn’t immediately respond to a call and e-mail seeking comment on the ruling. Kevin Roberts, a Christie spokesman in Trenton, New Jersey, declined to comment on it.
Baroni is the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, and Kelly is Christie’s ex-deputy chief of staff. They are accused of plotting with former Port Authority executive David Wildstein to close access lanes to the bridge in 2013 to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not backing Christie’s re-election. Wildstein pleaded guilty and is helping prosecutors.
Christie has denied he had any knowledge of the lane-closure plot. The scandal has dogged him as he competes for the GOP presidential nomination.
Taxpayers have paid almost $8 million to Gibson Dunn for its work on the investigation, according to the opinion.
Baroni attorney Michael Baldassare said “every taxpayer in New Jersey” should read the judge’s opinion.
“We cannot say it any better,” Baldassare said.
The case is U.S. v. Baroni, 15-cr-00193, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).