Saturday, February 1, 2014

Christiegate: Upping the ante


THE NEW York Times, David Wildstein and the law offices of Alan L. Zegas of Chatham, N.J., gave the weekend news cycle a big fat wet kiss, and in the process moved the first of serial investigations of the Chris Christie administration into even higher gear.

With one letter from one attorney seeking to gain a client recovery from his former employer, the scandal now engulfing the New Jersey governor threatens to move a few links higher on the food chain, a few steps further to the truth.

And if this is the game-changer it’s thought it could be, Christie’s political future as governor, and certainly his aspirations for the presidency of the United States, are more toast than anything popping out of the Proctor-Silex on your kitchen counter.

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On Friday, Kate Zernike of The Times reported that Zegas, the attorney for Wildstein, a former director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (and Christie high-school acquaintance), sent the Authority a letter seeking a reconsideration of the agency’s previous refusal to pay legal fees to cover those costs accrued and expected for attorneys to defend Wildstein on his role in the George Washington bridge investigation.

“I would request that you kindly reconsider the decision the Port Authority's decision to deny Mr. Wildstein payment of his legal fees and indemnification,” reads part of the letter sent to Port Authority general counsel Darrell Buchbinder, and obtained by The Times.

But later in the three-page letter, in a not-so-veiled signal to the Justice Department, Zegas ups the ante on Team Christie, and turns up the heat on the whole case. A more or less routine petition for financial redress becomes something more:

“It has also come to light that a person within the Christie administration communicated the Christie administration's order that certain lanes on the George Washington Bridge were to be closed, and 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.

“Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the Governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some,” Zegas writes, on Wildstein’s behalf.

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ZERNIKE reported that “Mr. Wildstein, a former political strategist and onetime author of a popular but anonymous political blog, seemed to be making an aggressive move against the governor at what should have been a celebratory moment for Mr. Christie, who had anticipated the playing of the Super Bowl in New Jersey this weekend.”

Christie’s already got more problems than making sure MetLife Stadium looks good. And on top of everything else, a story from back in October has returned to light. The Times’ Michael Powell reported Oct. 11 on Christie’s possible role (when he was a U.S. Attorney) in quashing indictments against Deborah Trout, former sheriff of Hunterdon County (and a Christie supporter), and others.

All the indictments were later dismissed by the state’s Attorney General, Paula Dow, including one for undersheriff Michael Russo, for extracting “loyalty oaths” from employees and making a false police ID for a fat Christie campaign donor.



Russo, The Times reported, “led a chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that the State Commission of Investigation found had operated like a paramilitary organization, with officers carrying guns and night-vision goggles. It was, the commission stated, the ‘paradigm of a society that is out of control.’ ”

We shouldn’t be surprised, apparently. “New Jersey,” Powell reported, “has made an art form of high-level interference in political cases. Governors dominate the legal landscape far more than in neighboring states. The governor appoints the attorney general, county prosecutors and judges, all subject to legislative confirmation.”

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While there’s still a lot to unpack in the widening whirlpool of the current GWB investigation, the new problems and Powell’s October revelations are painting a picture of Governor Christie as a control-freak capo, a statehouse Soprano, the head of a shadow government whose functionaries, enablers and maybe even thugs were ultimately answerable to the governor and almost no one else.


Perception may or may not be reality, but there’s already a lot that’s compelling, if not evidence per se. Only that level of hubris could lay the groundwork for a scenario of serial scandals that reflect badly on either the way Christie delegates or the way he directly manages.

Only that kind of confidence in his executive authority, and his ability to exert that authority, could compel Christie to deny what Alan Zegas’ letter provocatively claims he knew, and when he knew it.

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ZEGAS’ LETTER is an obvious pitch for immunity from prosecution in the GWB affair. Zegas previously said that Wildstein, his client, would be ever so happy to tell everything he knows about the bridge lane closings of September 2013, in exchange for that immunity. “If the attorneys general for New Jersey, New York and the United States were all to agree to clothe Mr. Wildstein with an immunity, I think you might find yourselves in a far different position with respect to information he can provide,” Zegas said at a Jan. 9 state Assembly Transportation Committee hearing.

There’ll be other sources for the information that New Jersey lawmakers and the Justice Department are after. Bet that. Twenty subpoenas sent to persons and organizations are supposed to be returned by Monday.

But if Wildstein really has “evidence” of Christie’s knowledge or involvement in closing access to the busiest bridge on earth for political purposes, the feds granting him immunity streamlines a process that’s already been jurisdictionally complicated.

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At the same time (maybe for his own personal reasons, maybe for tactical ones) Wildstein can’t be seen as directly asking DoJ for an immunity deal outright. At least not yet. This is the transactional dance of the law that’s playing out right now. Wildstein and his attorneys seem to have artfully laid out a gradualist strategy for showing their hand.

But one thing is inescapable: If Wildstein’s claim doesn’t hold water, if there’s nothing to it, his legal risks escalate. Then he’s looking at obstruction. The law offices of Alan L. Zegas of Chatham, N.J., would be publicly embarrassed too. A simple question, then: Why would Wildstein say he’s got the goods if he doesn’t have them?

The smart occupant of such a hot seat obeys the defendant’s prime directive: If you’re playing poker with the feds, you damn well don’t bluff.

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So why didn’t Wildstein release this hot stuff before now? Maybe he did.

The answers sought by New Jersey lawmakers and the feds, the “evidence” Wildstein says he has may well have been there all along in the trove of emails already provided — lurking under the swaths of black ink used to redact some parts of those emails and hide them from public view.

No doubt: their incriminating value is why they were redacted to start with.

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IN THE short run, Wildstein’s bid for immunity may have trumped the negotiating leverage of Bridget Anne Kelly, the former Christie deputy chief of staff whose email ushered in the GWB lane closures. Being first to the table makes Wildstein at least first among equals in this regard. In any given scandal, there’s only room for one John Dean.

But who knows what Kelly will say? After being fired by Christie, she’s seriously lawyered up, hiring Michael Critchley, a well-regarded defense attorney. The Bergen Record reported that Critchley “led the defense team that won the acquittal of the Lucchese crime family after a 21-month-long trial.” If Critchley can get a mob family a walk, helping Kelly win her case should be a stroll in the park. Maybe.

But in a recent editorial, the Star-Ledger fast-forwarded the scenario. “If this proves to be true, then the governor must resign or be impeached,” the editorial said.

“Because it will show that everything he said at his famous two-hour press conference was a lie. And not just a typical political lie — this was like a Broadway show of lies, and would leave Christie so drained of credibility that he could not possibly govern effectively.

“He would owe it to the people of New Jersey to step aside. And if he should refuse, then the Legislature should open impeachment hearings. ...”

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THIS IS a shocking development,” the Star-Ledger said. “Christie is now damaged goods. If Wildstein’s disclosures are as powerful as he claims, the governor must go.”

There’s miles of shoes to drop before we get any sleep on this thing. Nothing happens until after the subpoenas come back on Monday, after the game. Right now, though, pending the outcome, and maybe even regardless of the outcome, Chris Christie faces the dismal prospect of a governorship in jeopardy, a political career face down in the weeds out by the airport.

No matter how this turns out, it’s time to start calling this metastasizing scandal — the big game after the big game — what it really is. It’s not Bridgegate or Hobokengate or Sandygate or Port Authoritygate anymore, if it ever was.

It’s Christiegate from here on in.

Image credits: Wildstein: Angel Franco/The New York Times. New York Times nameplate: © 2014 The New York Times Company. Christie and Kelly: Getty Images via New York Post. Toaster: Proctor-Silex via Best Buy.

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