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In Christie scandal, a warning for future governors

A Jan. 24 Rutgers-Eagleton poll found that only 46 percent of New Jerseyans view ex-officio University trustee Chris Christie favorably, as opposed to 63 percent of New Jersey likely voters in an Oct. 10 Quinnipiac poll. After Christie acknowledged his aides’ role in the so-called Bridgegate scandal, a number of other allegations riled the Christie administration throughout the month of January.

Under mounting political pressure, Christie held a news conference on Jan. 9 to apologize for what he alleged were his aides’ politically motivated actions in closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge from Sept. 9 to Sep. 13. The bridge connects Fort Lee, N.J., to the borough of Manhattan in New York City. Fort Lee’s mayor had refused to endorse Christie in his re-election bid, and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC has speculated that Fort Lee may also have also been a target because its Democratic State Senator, Loretta Weinberg, vehemently opposed the re-appointment to the state Supreme Court of Helen Hoens, a Republican favored by Christie.

Christie also publicly announced on Jan. 9 the firing of aide Bridget Anne Kelly, who had written in an internal Aug. 13 email that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Christie had publicly rebuked Democrats on Aug. 12 for delaying the Hoens nomination, and claimed not to have known about Kelly’s communications until Jan. 8. Another Christie aide, David Wildstein, who served as director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, was also held in contempt of the state legislature on Jan. 9 for refusing to answer questions surrounding the lane closures. Contempt is a misdemeanor in New Jersey.

The Christie administration did not respond to a request for comment.

Politics professor emeritus Jameson W. Doig, author of Empire on the Hudson, a history of the bi-state Port Authority, noted that Christie had a history of prior conflict with the Port Authority’s objectives.

“[Christie] wanted money that would allow him to avoid having to raise the gas tax, and the way to avoid that was to have the Port Authority not build a new tunnel, the so-called ARC Tunnel between New Jersey and New York and to give a lot of that money to Christie, so he could use it on highway projects in the state,” Doig said. “He said in effect, ‘Give me that, or I’m going to block your other projects.’”

Doig said that Wildstein’s role at the Port Authority and his lack of prior transportation experience were a break from precedent.

“[Wildstein’s] role was to keep track of the staff [at the Port Authority] and to make sure people didn’t disagree with Christie’s plans,” Doig said. “Wildstein was viewed as a really dangerous character who could cost you your job if you went against him.”

Doig said that while previous governors had voiced opinions on Port Authority matters, they had never taken such an activist role. He noted as an example that Christie had doled out more than fifty patronage appointments at the agency.

“I think [Bridgegate] ought to make [future governors] wary of forcing the Port Authority to accept patronage appointees, and trying to force the Port Authority to give up its funds to deal with the governor’s short-term political problems,” Doig said. “[Patronage appointments] might end up demoralizing the staff, might give the governor a black eye.”

A special committee in the state legislature is currently investigating the lane closures. Matt Riley, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey, confirmed that the matter had been referred to his office by the Inspector General of the Port Authority, but declined to say whether an investigation was ongoing.

However, Christie acknowledged on Feb. 3 that the U.S. Attorney’s office had issued subpoena requests to his administration relating to the lane closures. Christie said his administration would comply with the requests.

Tom Byrne ’76, former chairman of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, managing director of Byrne Asset Management and a current member of the New Jersey State Investment Council, worried that the scandal was overshadowing Christie’s positive record on fiscal issues, including combatting what he viewed as excessive taxation.

“I think Governor Christie has made a genuine effort to be more responsible and change things fiscally. You get almost no political credit for that,” Byrne said. “The sad thing for the state, whatever your politics are, is that this scandal is inevitably going to detract from some of the bipartisan effort that’s needed to solve what are pretty serious problems.”

Byrne noted that much work remains to be done to prevent the “hollowing out” of New Jersey’s business base, work that is unlikely to be completed in the shadow of multiple investigations into the Christie administration’s conduct.

Allegations of Christie’s heavy-handed tactics have now extended beyond the Bridgegate scandal.

On Jan. 13, United States Representative Frank Pallone, a Democrat, announced that the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Inspector General was “auditing” the Christie administration, referring to its award of an advertising campaign contract (“Stronger Than The Storm”) to the firm MWW. On the same day, the Asbury Park Press obtained documents suggesting that the issue at hand was whether the Christie administration had a sufficient reason for awarding the contract to MWW, despite its bid being $2.2 million higher than that of the other competitor.

The documents that the Asbury Park Press obtained, however, had the names of individual members of the state Economic Development Authority redacted, which made it impossible to ascertain whose votes caused the contract to be awarded to MWW. The six-member Economic Development Authority is responsible for scoring the proposals based on their merits.

Christie spokesman Colin Reed responded at the time by calling the announcement “conveniently timed” and pointing out the Obama administration’s earlier support of advertising campaigns in the wake of natural disasters as a way to spur economic development, according to the National Review. Pallone responded that he had only just learned of the information recently and made it public shortly after, according to The Star-Ledger.

“I think his aid campaign was another way of trying to promote him as effectively as possible for his reelection,” Pallone told The Star-Ledger.

On Jan. 18, Mayor Dawn Zimmer of Hoboken, a Democrat, said that Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno threatened that the Christie administration would withhold Hurricane Sandy relief funds from Hoboken if she did not approve a real-estate development project proposed by the Rockefeller Group. The Rockefeller Group had hired Wolff & Samson, a lobbying firm run by Christie’s Port Authority Chairman David Samson, to win Zimmer’s approval.

The Rockefeller Group stated shortly after Zimmer’s claims that the allegations would be “deplorable” if true and terminated Wolff & Samson. It denied asking Guadagno to coerce Zimmer into approving the project.

The Christie administration claimed that it could find no evidence of the alleged threat, and Guadagno herself “categorically” denied that such a demand to Zimmer had ever been made.

On Jan. 23, the Daily Mail published allegations from state Assemblyman Joe Cryan that the Christie administration shut down the Motor Vehicle Commission office in Elizabeth, the fourth-largest city in the state, in 2010 as revenge for political dissent. Cryan and other Democratic legislators representing the area worked for Christie’s opponent, then Governor Jon Corzine, during Christie’s first gubernatorial bid and opposed Christie’s plan to cap the annual growth rate of property taxes.

“We have had a DMV since Henry Ford was building cars,” the Daily Mail quoted Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage as saying. “[Christie] was always one of those guys who punished individual legislators for not supporting the way he thinks. That’s just who he is.”

“I think it’s a cold, cruel and, … despicable thing for them to do this,” said a Republican political consultant, referring to the fact that residents of Elizabeth were less likely to be able to use online processes and more likely to need a location easily accessible by foot, speaking to the Daily Mail under the condition of anonymity.

In defense of Christie’s actions, Reed, the Christie spokesman, said that Christie had acted “to eliminate wasteful spending and ensure all government agencies were operating efficiently.”

Cryan, however, also said that “the salaries of the folks who worked there were relocated or assumed by others, and therefore all you were left with was lease payments [as savings].”

“And we wanted to work with the DMV, and move them into a building that may have even been owned by the city – because the service is important. Our demographics, our community needs a DMV that’s located on bus lines,” Cryan added.

A new claim of improper patronage has also been raised in the barrage of accusations against the Christie administration.

On Jan. 28, Christie’s appointment to chair the State Ethics Commission, Susana Espasa Guerrero, who had reportedly worked alongside all nine of Christie’s aides subpoenaed by the state legislature in the fallout from the lane closures, was confirmed by the current members of the Ethics Commission.

The Ethics Commission has the power to initiate investigations into misconduct and thus can investigate state officials in connection with the lane closures and “Stronger Than The Storm” advertising expenditures.

Paula Franzese, former chair of the commission, was quoted as criticizing Christie for the appointment.

“It was always the tradition that the governor’s office would not intercede in [ethics commission] appointments because the governors were mindful of avoiding the appearance of impropriety,” she said.

On Jan. 31, Wildstein, released a letter through his attorneys alleging that “evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the Governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference he gave immediately before Mr. Wildstein was scheduled to appear before the Transportation Committee.”

The letter, addressed to the general counsel of the Port Authority, was part of Wildstein’s quest to have the Port Authority pay his legal fees associated with his involvement in the case.

The Christie administration released a statement saying that “[Christie] only first learned lanes were closed when it was reported by the press and as he said in his January 9th press conference, had no indication that this was anything other than a traffic study until he read otherwise the morning of January 8th.”

Democratic National Committee spokesman Mo Elleithee cast doubts on Christie’s credibility in a statement that read, “Chris Christie said he barely knew David Wildstein. That was untrue. He said he hadn’t seen Mr. Wildstein in a long time. That was untrue. He’s repeatedly said that he had no knowledge of the lane closures. Today’s revelations raise serious questions about whether that is true.”

The Christie administration attacked Wildstein’s credibility in a Feb. 1. email to supporters.

“Bottom line: David Wildstein will do and say anything to save David Wildstein,” the email said.

Wildstein and Christie’s former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, have both invoked the Fifth Amendment against legislative subpoenas that they object violate their right against self-incrimination.

Both Loretta Weinberg, the state senator whom Rachel Maddow posited as the target of the lane closures in Fort Lee, and Bill Baroni, former deputy executive of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey who resigned in the wake of the bridge developments, were part of a panel entitled “New Jersey 101” at Princeton in fall 2005. The purpose of the panel was to “discuss major issues in New Jersey politics,” according to a press release announcing the event. Topics such as affordable housing, high property taxes and campaign finance were discussed at the meeting.  Baroni had been a state assemblyman at the time.

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