An extensive investigation by Chris Christie’s lawyers tentatively cleared the New Jersey governor of wrongdoing in connection with the lane closure scandal that has tainted his presidential prospects.
“Our investigation found that Governor Christie did not know of the lane realignment beforehand and had no involvement in the decision to realign the lanes,” according to the authors of the report, which was released Thursday morning. “Once the Governor became aware,” the report said, “he made appropriate inquiries and even convened a special meeting of his senior staff on December 13, 2013, demanding to know whether any of them were involved in this decision, only to be lied to.”
The inquiry was conducted by lawyers at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which Christie’s office retained in January. The $1 million review combed public and private emails and text messages. The lawyers, led by Gibson, Dunn partner Randy Mastro, interviewed Christie, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and more than 70 Christie aides and appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It came at a cost to taxpayers of $650 per hour.
The report suggests Christie behaved appropriately upon learning the truth about the lane closures that took place on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge last September. The report asserts Christie’s public accounting of what he knew about the lane closures “rings true.”
In a press conference to unveil the report on Thursday, Mastro said the report was “vindication” of Christie’s public comments about the matter. “We found that Gov. Christie had no knowledge beforehand of the George Washington Bridge realignment idea, and that he played no role whatsoever,” Mastro said.
The document places the blame for the incident on a tight circle of culprits, led by Bridget Kelly, a member of the governor’s senior staff. It provides a fuller picture of the scope of the scheme, as well as the subsequent cover-up by Kelly.
“We have not found any evidence of anyone in the Governor’s Office knowing about the lane realignment beforehand or otherwise being involved, besides Bridget Kelly,” the attorneys concluded. “Whatever motivated [Port Authority official David] Wildstein and Kelly to act as they did, it was not at the behest of Governor Christie, who knew nothing about it.”
The report has significant limitations, not least because of the lawyer’s ties to the Christie Administration. In addition, the three people at the heart of the scandal—Kelly, a former Christie deputy chief of staff; Bill Stepien, his two-time campaign manager; and Wildstein, who supervised the lane closures—all declined to participate in the probe.
According to the report, during a private dinner in December Wildstein told Christie’s press secretary that he had previously mentioned the lane closures to the governor. “Wildstein said this as he reiterated that the lane realignment was his idea and a legitimate traffic study,” the report notes.
Though Mastro defended the inquiry as “thorough and exhaustive,” the lawyers acknowledge the report has holes. In particular, lingering questions remain over the precise motivation of Wildstein and Kelly for closing the lanes. Media reports have suggested that the lanes were closed as retribution for Democratic Fort Lee, N.J. Mayor Mark Sokolich declining to endorse Christie for re-election. However, Christie and Sokolich have both raised questions about that theory.
Christie’s office hopes the report will help put the controversy behind him, though there are ongoing legislative and criminal inquiries into the lane closure scandal. Christie is sitting down with ABC’s Diane Sawyer Thursday in his first television interview since his two-hour press conference after the emails were revealed.
The 345-page report also examined Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegation that Guadagno had threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy recovery aid over a development project. Zimmer and Hoboken officials declined to speak with the lawyers, but they concluded her “allegations are unsubstantiated and, in material respects, demonstrably false” regardless.
Democrats have called the report a sham in advance of its release, pointing to the fact that Mastro is a confidant of Christie ally and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
“The report released today is nothing more than a taxpayer-funded PR blitz to give Christie a crisis management talking point before all the facts are even known,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin said in a statement. “While numerous questions remain about Bridgegate, we do know that Christie created a culture in his office that led to the lane closures. Following the closures, Christie’s government office, campaign staff and Port Authority officials conspired in a months-long effort to cover up the damage that was done by their petty actions.”
Mastro defended his impartiality in the press conference, noting that he has defended many local Democratic politicians and that subsequent probes would reveal any inaccuracies in his firm’s report. “This is a search for the truth, and we believe we have gotten the truth,” he said. “We believe we got it right, and we will ultimately be judged by that.”
The review recommends several changes to Christie’s gubernatorial office, including restricting the use of personal email for state business and eliminating the intergovernmental affairs office held by Kelly and Stepien before her. The attorneys also called on Christie to appoint an Ombudsperson and a Chief Ethics Officer within his office to prevent similar situations in the future. Additionally, they called on Christie to work with the State of New York to consider reforms to the bi-state Port Authority.
The full report is below: