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Republican Hopefuls Face Death by Prosecutor

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Several Republicans with 2016 presidential ambitions have been plagued by prosecutors. Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, once touted as a potential contender, was sentenced to prison last month. Texas Governor Rick Perry is preparing for a possible trial. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who local prosecutors accused of engaging in a "criminal scheme," isn't quite out of reach. And, of course, Governor Chris Christie appears to be keeping half the lawyers in New Jersey occupied.

In the second-most-damaging story about Christie yesterday, the Record reported that federal prosecutors had issued a subpoena last month for travel records of former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Chairman David Samson. It seems Samson's tenure at the authority, which operates Newark Airport, among others, coincided with United Airlines' creation of a highly improbable new flight route.

The Record:

The route provided non-stop service between Newark and Columbia Metropolitan Airport in South Carolina -- about 50 miles from a home where Samson often spent weekends with his wife. United halted the non-stop route on April 1 of last year, just three days after Samson resigned under a cloud.

Samson was close to Christie. He served as chairman of the gubernatorial transition team after Christie's first election, and Christie appointed him to lead the Port Authority. But he is only one thread in the Christie corruption tapestry. From an initial inquiry into the George Washington Bridge traffic jam -- perversely engineered, it seems, by at least one Christie aide -- federal investigations are now delving into vast chunks of the governor's political career. Potential donors and campaign workers can hardly be oblivious to the considerable risks of banking on Christie for 2016.  

The other Christie news yesterday was that federal prosecutors are investigating claims by a local New Jersey prosecutor, Bennett Barlyn, who said he was fired from his job after he objected to Christie administration officials interfering in a case against political allies of the governor.

Christie regularly exhibits atrocious judgment. But most of his current troubles are prosecutor-driven, originating in the initial inquiry about the George Washington Bridge. That's what happens when prosecutors begin inquiries: People who otherwise would remain silent instead come forward to share grievances, which sometimes take the form of criminal allegations. Prosecutors follow leads, which produce more fodder for more investigations. (See Clinton, Whitewater, Lewinsky.)

Prosecutors ended any ambitions held by McDonnell. Perry is running for president while facing two felony counts -- for threatening to veto funding for Travis County prosecutors unless a county prosecutor convicted of drunken driving resigned. The case seems like a reach but, hey, stuff happens.

Walker, who is enjoying a boost from a recent speech in Iowa, received good news this week from a federal judge.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

In a ruling that could further weaken a stalled probe into Gov. Scott Walker's campaign and conservative groups, a federal judge found key portions of Wisconsin's campaign finance laws are unconstitutional.

In documents released last June, local prosecutors had accused Walker of engaging in a "criminal scheme" in 2011 and 2012 to coordinate Republican campaign spending in Wisconsin illegally. Six former Walker aides previously had been convicted of performing political business on public time when Walker was Milwaukee county executive. So any additional political charges against Walker would probably be portrayed as part of a pattern, not an anomaly.

The Walker inquiry seemed to be fizzling even before the judge's ruling this week. Campaign finance cases are hard to prove, in part because political fundraising laws rely on inexact words such as "coordination." Walker now looks as if he will shake his pursuers.

Even if that's the case, prosecutors have already shaped the 2016 Republican field. Like Walker's case, Perry's defense demands time and energy from the candidate and could spook some supporters. McDonnell is one potential candidate down. Christie may yet be one to go.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net