Saturday, April 5, 2014

Bridge Gate Updates April 5 , 2014 -- NEWARK — A federal grand jury has begun hearing testimony in the criminal investigation of the George Washington Bridge lane closing scandal, and Gov. Chris Christie’s chief spokesman is among those who have testified ....... TRENTON — The state legislative panel investigating the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge will meet for the first time since February next week to discuss the ongoing probe as well the issuance of new subpoenas for more records and testimony ...... New Jersey Spotlight covers Bridge Gate -- A JILTED LOVER, A 'CRAZY' MAN AND DIANE SAWYER: WHAT CHRISTIE CRISIS MANAGEMENT LOOKS LIKE , HOW CHRISTIE'S OFFICE USED GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES TO WIN ENDORSEMENTS .....

NEWARK — A federal grand jury has begun hearing testimony in the criminal investigation of the George Washington Bridge lane closing scandal, and Gov. Chris Christie’s chief spokesman is among those who have testified, his lawyer said yesterday.

The grand jury action is considered a major development in the ongoing controversy that has enveloped the Christie administration for months. What began as a preliminary inquiry into whether federal laws might have been "implicated" has morphed into a deepening criminal probe to determine whether federal laws have actually been broken.

"I think it is a very important step," said Miles Feinstein, a veteran defense attorney who has been monitoring the developments. "In this particular case, there have been questions as to whether or not there is federal jurisdiction — in other words, have any federal laws been violated.

"I would have to think that if they now have a grand jury to investigate Bridgegate and perhaps other allegations, at the very least it’s been determined there are federal statutes that may or may not have been violated," he said.

Joseph Hayden, a prominent defense lawyer and former state prosecutor, concurred that an important step had been taken.

"The fact that there is an active grand jury investigation does mean that the government is taking the inquiry seriously enough to bring witnesses before the grand jury," he said. "Still, it does not mean any decision has been made as to whether or not there has been a federal offense or whether there is a provable case."

Among those who have testified before the grand jury in Newark is Michael Drewniak, the governor’s chief spokesman, his attorney, Anthony Iacullo, confirmed.

Iacullo stressed, however, that Drewniak is not a target of the investigation.

"We have been assured by the U.S. Attorney’s Office that (Drewniak) is and always has been a witness to the proceedings," Iacullo said. He would not disclose what Drewniak told the grand jury.

It was not immediately known who else has testified before the grand jury. Rebekah Carmichael, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, would not comment on the existence of the grand jury investigation.

"We cannot speak to the specifics of the ongoing inquiry," she said.

ABC News reported Drewniak was inside Newark’s federal courthouse for more than two hours yesterday and testified in a ground-floor courtroom before 23 grand jurors who have been convened by federal prosecutors.

Drewniak’s name publicly surfaced in documents related to the bridge scandal, including one in which he referred to Patrick Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, as a "piece of excrement."

In February, Drewniak met with federal prosecutors in New Jersey for "several hours" to answer questions about his role in last September’s lane closings, Iacullo confirmed at the time. He was also among those subpoenaed by a state legislative committee conducting its own investigation.

Federal prosecutors want to know whether federal laws were violated last September when the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey closed two local-access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, triggering four days of massive traffic jams in Fort Lee.

Officials at the Port Authority, which operates the bridge, initially said the lanes were closed because a traffic study had been undertaken.

But emails later revealed the closings were orchestrated by Bridget Anne Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff to Christie, and David Wildstein, and former top official at the Port Authority, in what is thought to be political retribution after the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee declined to endorse Christie’s re-election.

Christie has denied any direct knowledge of the lane closings.

In January, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said the inspector general for the Port Authority had "referred the matter to us, and our office is reviewing the matter to determine whether a federal law was implicated."

The federal grand jury will meet for up to the next 18 months, ABC News reported.

Bridge scandal panel to consider new subpoenas for records, testimony

Christopher Baxter/The Star-LedgerBy Christopher Baxter/The Star-Ledger 
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on April 03, 2014 at 4:58 PM, updated April 04, 2014 at 6:21 AM
TRENTON — The state legislative panel investigating the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge will meet for the first time since February next week to discuss the ongoing probe as well the issuance of new subpoenas for more records and testimony, its leaders said today.
The committee will convene at 2 p.m. Tuesday and receive an update on the investigation, a co-chair, Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), said. Members will then go into executive session to decide whether to issue more subpoenas, she said.
Weinberg declined to identify the targets of the subpoenas, but said they would seek records as well as demand testimony from those tied to the scandal. "We have names that we think it would be worthwhile for us to hear from," Weinberg said.
Those people will not include Bridget Anne Kelly, Gov. Chris Christie's former deputy chief of staff, or Bill Stepien, his two-time campaign manager, who are battling the committee in state court over two subpoenas issued in February seeking records related to the closings.
The panel's other co-chairman, John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), said earlier this week that a new subpoena would be issued for notes, recordings and interviews conducted as part of the internal review of Christie's office by the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
The firm, which cleared the governor of any wrongdoing in a report issued last week, has declined to provide the material, citing its cooperation with the U.S. Attorney's Office of New Jersey, which is conducting a criminal investigation into the lane closings.
Wisniewski declined to say who would be targeted in the new round or how many requests would be issued, but said Christie would not be among the recipients. He said the subpoenas were a natural progression of the committee's work, "whether it’s a follow-up on the material we’ve received, but we think it needs more clarification, or whether it’s testimony from individuals from whom we’ve received documents."

New Jersey Spotlight items of interest.......





MATT KATZ | MARCH 30, 2014

The internal Bridgegate report released by a legal team hired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's office contains some new information, but not much. The report is more instructive as a study of crisis management -- and an examination of how a possible presidential candidate reacted to a crisis.
Step 1. Stagecraft: The report was commissioned by the governor, paid for by taxpayers (to the tune of $1 million), and written by Christie allies. The report's conclusion, but not the details of its findings, were first leaked to The New York Times in a front-page story Monday. By Thursday, Christie attorney Randy Mastro held a news conference at his law offices high above midtown Manhattan and insisted to a skeptical press corps that this was an independent, exhaustive report that sought all information, good or bad, about the governor. But the presence of one of the governor's spokesmen and a member of his advance team indicated close coordination. The report was more than 300 pages long, but it was only provided to the media an hour before the news conference, and even then, thousands of pages of backup documents -- including emails from the governor himself -- were not released until the news conference began. 
Mastro cut off reporters after about 90 minutes. He promised to do interviews later, but told WNYC that he was too busy. Meanwhile, Christie sat for a softball interview with Diane Sawyer to lead "ABC World News" at 6:30 p.m. Further clips from the interview would be slated to air on "Nightline," and then on "Good Morning America."
Step 2. Talk About Sex: An odd detail appeared in the fifth paragraph of the report's executive summary. It said that after campaign manager Bill Stepien quit his position as deputy chief of staff in April 2013 in order to run Christie's reelection campaign, he became "personally involved" with the woman who took his place in that office, Bridget Anne Kelly.
"Although, by early August 2013, their personal relationship had cooled, apparently at Stepien’s choice, and they largely stopped speaking," the report says. Later, it returns to this factoid, surmising that Kelly's decision to be involved with the lane closures may have something to do with being dumped by Stepien: "[E]vents in Kelly’s personal life may have had some bearing on her subjective motivations and state of mind." 
How these conclusions about their personal relationship were determined is not known, since neither Stepien nor Kelly spoke to investigators. But it served two purposes: It explained away Kelly's involvement in the lane closures, attributing motivation to why she did what she did by attacking her emotional state of mind. And by noting that Kelly and Stepien "had largely stopped speaking" when she sent an August email that it was "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," the report separates Stepien, Christie's righthand political man, from the conspiracy. If Stepien wasn't involved, the theory goes, then Christie wasn't involved.
Still, Stepien's attorney, Kevin Marino, was disgusted by what he described as a gratuitous and irrelevant effort at distraction on the part of Christie's lawyers. "The headlines, what I've seen so far, everyone seems to be leading with this relationship and it's so completely off the point," Marino said. 
Step 3. Attack: The report extensively attacks the allegations of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who in the wake of Bridgegate accused Christie of pushing a redevelopment deal in her town. In fact, despite the fact that the Bridgegate scandal is a much bigger deal for the public than the Zimmer allegations, fully half of the report's executive summary is dedicated to breaking down Zimmer's allegations.
Zimmer said that three Christie officials threatened to take away Sandy aid to her town if she didn't approve the redevelopment project, and lobbyists close to Christie pressed for the project. Christie's lawyers present extensive evidence to counter Zimmer's claims and her credibility, even including still photographs from video taken at one of the public appearances where she said a shakedown occurred. The photographs "show Mayor Zimmer starting the conversation and doing most of the talking during it, yawning about midway through, and then smiling at the end -- hardly the demeanor one would expect of someone who had just been threatened."
Step 4. "Does Not Recall": The lawyers take the most potentially damning new accusation and immediately refute it, then dismiss it. They say that David Wildstein, the governor's appointee at the Port Authority, told Christie's spokesman that he had told the governor about the lane closures while they were happening when the pair were together at Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2013. But they nonetheless conclude that this statement is bogus because Christie said he didn't "recall" this happening. The report also explains why the governor wouldn't have recalled such a conversation: "[It] would not have registered with the governor in any event because he knew nothing about this decision in advance and would not have considered another traffic issue at one of the bridges or tunnels to be memorable."
Step 5. Frame The Questions: Perhaps what was most evident in the report was what wasn't there. For example, none of the top five biggest names in the Bridgegate scandal were interviewed. Among those are David Samson, Christie's mentor who is currently serving the governor as chairman of the Port Authority, which operates the bridge. Samson is referred to in previously released documents as being the one who would "retaliate" against the official who finally reopened the lanes. So did he retaliate? Why was he chosen to retaliate? And why didn't Christie make sure he would sit down for an interview with his lawyers? Samson's absence in the report allowed Christie's attorneys to frame the questions, and the fact that the 70 people interviewed weren't under oath may have helped, too.
Step 6. Propose Reforms: Christie's lawyers make some intriguing recommendations going forward, such as the appointment of a chief ethics officer in the governor's office and the restructuring of the Port Authority. Yet the report portrays the issues here as isolated incidents, of Wildstein, who is described as having come up with the lane closure idea "like so many other 'crazy' ones he’d had before that." And Kelly is portrayed as a jilted ex. 
So why are such systemic changes necessary if nothing systemic went wrong on Christie's watch? There is a disconnect here. But people expect reforms; they will make Christie look good. Tear a page from Crisis Management 101.




The thrust of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election strategy last year was to secure endorsements from Democratic officials -- and new Bridgegate documents show just how intent he was to make sure that happened.
The documents, culled by WNYC from thousands of pages released by his attorney last week as part of an internal review, show that the very same people who helped mayors as government workers also sought their endorsements as political operatives.  Former government staffers in both Republican and Democratic administrations in Trenton called the activity a break with tradition.
The extent to which the lines between taxpayer-funded functions and political campaign activities were blurred is reflective of how badly Christie wanted to win re-election by large margins. To do that, he needed Democrats, and to get Democrats, he needed Democratic officials to endorse him. By collecting these endorsements he could prove himself as a Republican who could win in a blue state – and therefore, a perfect candidate for president in 2016.
The first record of the intense focus on endorsements came at a meeting in Christie’s office at the Statehouse in January 2013 that was ostensibly about Sandy funding. This was when Governor Christie himself asked Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer for her endorsement.
Zimmer was non-committal. So afterward, Christie’s staff in his taxpayer-funded office at the Statehouse worked in concert with his re-election campaign to do what they could do to get Zimmer on their side. They fast-tracked meetings with state officials Zimmer wanted to meet with, and government staffers were kept up-to-date on the status of Zimmer's endorsement.
But by July 2013, four months before the election, Zimmer still hadn't decided whether she was going to endorse in the election. Christie Campaign Manager Bill Stepien was getting anxious.
"We’re approaching a point in time where we have the ‘so what’s it gonna be?’ [question]," he wrote to a colleague. "Are you with us, or against us?"
Stepien, who until April 2013 worked in the governor's office as a deputy chief of staff, personifies the way in which the lines between government and politics blur. He was slated to become head of the state Republican party until bridgegate broke and Christie severed ties with him.
"Only the most naïve among us would believe that politics is not a major element in any governor’s office," said Carl Golden, a press secretary in two Republican administrations in New Jersey, "It’s always there. The key is how discreet the office is going to be." 
Team Christie was not discreet when it came to the Hoboken mayor. When Stepien learned that the Zimmer wasn’t endorsing anyone, he was furious, complaining to a colleague that they had been "kissing her ass" all these years for nothing.
And at an August event in Hoboken, in which reality TV's Cake Boss endorsed Christie, Zimmer wanted to come. The event was right across from Hoboken City Hall. But Christie himself okayed a decision to tell her to stay away.
In October, she made another overture to Christie officials, offering to release a statement of support for the governor. In the same email, she seemed to try to prove that she was a loyal soldier: When a reporter had asked her if she lost out on Sandy aid because of her failure to endorse, she said no.
Christie won re-election by 22 points. Then the bridgegate scandal broke, and Zimmer told WNYC she wondered if Hoboken really did lose Sandy aid over the lack of an endorsement.
"With 20/20 hindsight, in the context we're in right now, we can always look back and say, 'Okay, was it retribution?'" Zimmer said in January. "I think probably all mayors are reflecting right now and thinking about it, but I really hope that that's not the case."
Christie officials have vehemently denied that politics has anything to do with the distribution of Sandy aid.
But another mayor wondered about retribution when lanes to the George Washington Bridge from his town inexplicably closed last September. The speculation continues to be that the bridgegate scandal evolved from a plan to retaliate against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who didn't endorse Christie.
"He was not someone who was on my radar screen in any way, politically, professionally or in any other way," Christie said of Sokolich in January. 
But internal documents indicate that his team was going after Sokolich hard. His name first showed up in an email sent in January 2013 by a government official, Pete Sheridan, to five of his employees in the Intergovernmental Affairs unit of the Governor’s Office. The email had a list of 21 Democratic "targets" whom the workers were supposed to secure endorsements from.
Sheridan told his state employees that they should be only doing this on their own time, since it was political work. But he sent those instructions during work hours, on a Thursday. And the documents show one of the employees met with the Fort Lee mayor on a Tuesday, for lunch, in which the topic of endorsements came up.
This was an official government meeting, a lawyer for the state party explained Wednesday, but Sokolich was the one who brought up the endorsement. The documents indicate that the idea of the endorsement came up because the pair were talking about another mayor's endorsement.
"That mayor doesn’t need a translator to understand what’s going on," said Golden, the former Republican press secretary. "That the governor’s office is in the position to help, that the governor’s office is in a position to harm, depending on the outcome of these conversations."
Former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine kept a wall separating government meetings and political endorsements, former aides said, with endorsement requests happening in the early mornings at diners, for example.
Braxton Plummer was the director of Intergovernmental Affairs for Corzine, and he said reports about how the office was used by Christie shocked him.
"Everybody stayed on message to do the appropriate thing on a day-to-day basis," he said. "From nine to five, we operate as government, so there was no time to play the side."
If government workers volunteered on the campaign, the lines were clearly established, he said.
In August of last year, top government aide Bridget Anne Kelly checked to see if the Fort Lee mayor had decided to endorse Christie. He hadn’t. The next morning, she wrote the famous email: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." And on Sept. 9, the first day of the lane closures, she checked in with the state worker who had been trying to secure Sokolich's endorsement: Had he called yet to complain?
Christie’s spokesman sent WNYC a statement from the governor’s lawyer, Randy Mastro, who reiterated that government staff volunteered to do the campaign work on their own personal time. "There is no ethical or other prohibition against such volunteer work," Mastro said.
A lawyer for the state Republican party said that campaign workers who also work for government are told to clearly identify which hat they are wearing, and when. They are instructed to do work during off hours, but are also allowed brief "diversions" during the work day to send emails, for example.
"Just because someone is on a state employee doesn’t mean they're not allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights and volunteer for a campaign," said the lawyer, Mark Sheridan.
Yet despite Team Christie’s insistence that this Intergovernmental Affairs office was acting properly, and despite the fact that Mastro largely blamed a couple of rogue actors for Bridgegate, Mastro has recommended restructuring the Intergovernmental Affairs unit.
So far, Christie hasn’t endorsed the recommendation.