Chris Christie got his say on Thursday. In a report released to the public, defense attorneys representing the New Jersey governor’s office offered the results of their investigation into the George Washington Bridge lane closures, and the tangentially-related Hoboken development scandal. The findings were good news for the governor.
“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,” the report stated. Later it added: “Our investigation found that [Hoboken Mayor Dawn] Zimmer’s allegations are, in material respects, demonstrably false.”
So all good in Christie-land? Not quite. Or at least, not yet. Just hours after the release of the report Christie’s critics came forward to denounce it. The two Democratic state lawmakers leading the legislative investigation issued a statement Thursday raising questions about the “objectivity and thoroughness” of attorney Randy Mastro’s investigation. Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken, went further, calling the report a “one-sided whitewash.” (The New York Times editorial board echoed her words.) And there is still a U.S. Attorney’s Office investigation bubbling on the back burner.
The reality is that Mastro’s report itself, on its face, leaves a number of issues unresolved about the scandals and the actions of Christie and those around him, and even raised a few new ones. It paints a nice picture for Christie, but hardly a perfect one. Here are a few of the big outstanding questions:
Why Were The Lanes Closed?
The basic question in the lane closing scandal has been the same ever since the first newspaper reports in September noted the unusually bad traffic in Fort Lee, N.J. Why were the lanes closed? What was the motive?
The report pins the blame for the lane closures on former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive David Wildstein and former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, who carried out the plan “at least in part, for some ulterior motive to target [Fort Lee Mayor Mark] Sokolich,” according to the report. But Mastro and his team of lawyers were unable what Wildstein and Kelly’s “ulterior motive” may have been.
“What motivated this act is not yet clear,” the report states.
Sokolich, a Democrat, declined to endorse Christie’s re-election last year, and many in New Jersey have pointed to that decision as a possible motivation for the lane closures. Mastro’s report doesn’t rule out that possibility, but it also calls it “unlikely that political retaliation for Sokolich’s unwillingness to endorse could have been the true objective of the lane realignment.”
How Significant Is The Sept. 11 Conversation Between Christie And Wildstein?
Mastro’s report contained at least one major revelation. According to the report, Wildstein has claimed that he spoke to Christie about traffic in Fort Lee at a public event that occurred while the lanes were closed. This might be the “evidence” that Wildstein’s lawyer referred to in a letter to the Port Authority in late January. It remains to be seen how important this alleged conversation will be.
Christie — who has been slippery about exactly when he first learned about the traffic issue — has now acknowledged speaking to Wildstein at a 9/11 Memorial event on Sept. 11. But he says he cannot recall what they discussed.
Again, the issue is that Mastro and his team were unable to interview Wildstein. The allegation comes via Christie’s spokesperson Michael Drewniak. Drewniak and Wildstein had dinner together on Dec. 4, two days before Wildstein resigned.
“The majority of the dinner was social, with discussion focusing on family and politics,” the report states. “Wildstein expressed his concerns about his future, his position at the Port Authority, and how he was viewed in the Governor’s Office (something with which Wildstein was preoccupied). Drewniak believed that Wildstein would not remain in his role for much longer, and he endeavored to primarily listen to Wildstein. Drewniak observed that Wildstein seemed anxious during the dinner. During the dinner, Wildstein repeated to Drewniak that Kelly and [former Christie campaign manager Bill] Stepien had some knowledge of the traffic study, and, for the first time, Wildstein claimed that he had mentioned the traffic study to the Governor at a public event during the period of the lane realignment.”
Why Did Christie’s Lawyers Out The ‘Personal Relationship’ Of Ex-Aides?
The other revelation contained in the report concerns an alleged personal relationship between Kelly and Stepien. It’s unclear how a relationship between the two fits into the explanation of the lane closures, but Mastro has pointed to the timing. According to the report, Kelly and Stepien (another key player who refused to be interviewed) became “personally involved” some time after Stepien left the governor’s office to run Christie’s re-election campaign. Stepien is described as Kelly’s “benefactor,” and Kelly replaced Stepien as deputy chief of staff when he left for the campaign.
“By early August 2013, their personal relationship had cooled, apparently at Stepien’s choice, and they largely stopped speaking,” the report states.
The report indicates that Stepien, along with former Port Authority executive Bill Baroni, were the two other people who had advance knowledge of the plan to close the lanes — but that neither knew about the “ulterior motive.” Mastro has pointed to the “cooling” of Stepien and Kelly’s relationship in August as significant. Kelly sent her infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email to Wildstein on August 13.
But critics see something else going on. In a phone call with reports on Thursday, New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski called the reference to the relationship “gratuitous” and “salacious.”
“I’m not sure how it adds to the facts that we need to be able to determine what happened here,” Wisniewski said.
Friends of Kelly’s who spoke anonymously to The New York Times said the inclusion of the relationship and other aspects in the report struck them as sexism.
Where Is David Samson?
There’s a pretty long list of key players that refused to be interviewed by Mastro and his team — which is one of the major criticisms of the report. Kelly, Wildstein, and Stepien are mentioned above. Baroni, the other Port Authority executive who lost his job in the scandal, also refused, as did Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer and Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich. But there’s one more person whose voice is missing from the report: David Samson.
Samson is the chairman of the Port Authority, and a close ally of Christie’s. Questions have been raised about how much Samson knew about the lane closures, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jeresy has subpoenaed Port Authority records concerning major contracts awarded to companies represented by Wolff & Samson, a law firm Samson founded.
In response to a question from The New York Times, Mastro acknowledged that “the Wolff Samson firm declined to have parties there interviewed.”
Christie himself was asked about the people who refused to speak to Mastro’s team during his radio interview on Wednesday. See if you can spot whose name is missing.
“Bridget Kelly, Bill Stepien, Bill Baroni, David Wildstein, Dawn Zimmer, Mayor Sokolich all refused to be interviewed,” Christie said.