It’s a new week, and N.J. Gov. Chris Christie isn’t in New Jersey but New Hampshire. Unfortunately for him, he’s also in the New York Times facing new allegations.
On Sunday night the Times reported that David Wildstein, who was once Gov. Chris Christie’s No. 2 appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and who pled guilty in early May to two federal felonies in connection to Bridgegate, filed a sworn statement in a federal civil suit alleging that Christie disclosed secret grand jury information to him and other political aides dating back to Christie’s time as the top federal prosecutor in the state.
Ordinarily, Wildstein’s charge would be easy to miss. It was buried in a sworn statement he signed on Friday before his attorney forwarded it to lawyers representing Gerald Speziale, a former Port Authority deputy police superintendent who in 2014 filed a federal civil lawsuit against the Port alleging that he was intimidated and harassed after reporting corruption at the agency.
Wildstein is a co-defendant in that case.
Confused? Well, that’s New Jersey politics for you. And Chris Christie seems to have more legal headaches by the day. But here’s how it all fits together.
In a query posed by Speziale’s attorneys, Wildstein was asked to describe conversations he had about Speziale. He responded by describing a June 2010 meeting hosted by Governor Christie in the governor’s private office in the State House in Trenton. Present were Christie, Wildstein, Christie’s chief of staff Richard Bagger (who now chairs the Port Authority board), the governor’s appointments counsel Michele Brown (who worked alongside Christie when he was U.S. Attorney), and Bill Baroni, the Port Authority’s deputy executive director.
[The revelation of this meeting makes it the third publicly-known one to have occurred in Trenton at which Christie and Wildstein were both present, further challenging the governor’s January 9, 2014 statement: “I don’t even remember in the last four years even having a meeting in my office with David Wildstein. I may have, but I don’t remember it.”]
According to Wildstein’s statement, the governor spoke to the group about recruiting Speziale to become the deputy police superintendent and deputy director of public safety at the Port Authority, a job that paid about $200,000-per-year. At the time, Speziale was the popular Democratic sheriff of Passaic County, giving him the law enforcement credentials needed to perform the job Christie was contemplating for him.
Jerry Speziale, former Sheriff of Passaic County
But accoding to Wildstein’s statement, Christie had political motives in mind in naming Speziale to the security post at the bi-state agency: the governor “wanted to get Speziale to drop his re-election bid to help Republicans win the post, and to take Speziale’s campaign war chest out of the race.”
In 2010 Speziale was in the middle of campaigning for a third term and had more than $600,000 in campaign cash on hand – money that would be available to the county Democratic party in the fall elections, when two of the seven seats on the county’s board of freeholders were up for grabs. Democrats held a 4-3 margin and both of the seats at risk in that race; they had no margin for error.
For outsiders who aren’t from Passaic County, let me just give a word of background as someone who was born and raised there. It’s a county without a county executive or supervisor, making the sheriff job a big deal. The sheriff is the top county law enforcement official. In Passaic County, this means he runs a police force, a jail, and security for the county courthouse in Paterson – a brigade of about 700 people in all.
The patronage opportunities that came with the position were powerful enough that for most of my life the only sheriff I ever had heard of was a Republican named Edwin Englehardt, a de facto county Republican party co-chairman in Passaic County. If you were a Republican elected official or someone who wanted to become one, you crossed Englehardt at your peril. Likewise, if you wanted to remain a Republican official, you praised him whenever you could. Englehardt held power for more than two decades until 2002, when Passaic County elected its first Democratic sheriff in more than five decades: Gerald “Jerry” Speziale.
A former New York Police Department narcotics detective with a compelling backstory, Speziale had been convinced by Passaic County Democrats to change his party registration from Republican to Democratic and, in turn, lead the takeover of the sheriff’s office. He was good at the job’s politics and was re-elected as the county’s Democratic organization consolidated control over county government. In 1990, all seven seats on the county board of freeholders had been held by Republicans. Today none are, and the current county chairman in Passaic is the chairman of New Jersey’s Democratic state party apparatus. The party’s fortunes were dramatically reversed in the 1990s and early 2000s, and Jerry Speziale played a crucial role of that transformation.
With that history, it’s no wonder that Chris Christie didn’t want Speziale’s name or money near the ballot in Passaic County in 2010. Appointing Speziale to the Port Authority in the summer of 2010 would throw the Passaic County Democrats into chaos as they struggled to find a new candidate and recover from the loss of $600,000 in campaign funds.
Not surprisingly, Christie’s use of a Port Authority post to advance his party’s electoral strategy raised suspicions, especially when Speziale’s appointment was executed so quietly that neither the county Democratic party chairman nor the local congressman, former Paterson mayor Bill Pascrell, knew about it beforehand. Christie’s spokesman, Michael Drewniak, insisted, however, that the governor was not involved in Speziale’s selection. “It was a Port Authority hire,” he said in a statement. “Certainly we were aware of the hire, but from all that we know and from what we learned from the Port Authority, Speziale…is highly qualified for the post. That’s what matters most.” The story Wildstein is now describing directly contradicts that statement and, once again, implicates Christie in the direct, day-to-day management of the Port Authority and its personnel.
Speziale’s lawsuit, too, paints a grim picture of how Christie’s appointees ran the agency. After reporting what he considered as illegal conduct to his superiors at the agency – including Wildstein and Baroni – Speziale claims that the agency denied him the use of an official vehicle, yanked his security credentials, and revoked health benefits for his wife, Maggie, as she sought treatment for terminal breast cancer. Speziale also says the agency denied him permission to take a family medical leave to accompany her to Texas for treatment. Speziale resigned from the Port Authority in October 2013, Maggie Speziale died in April 2014, and he filed suit against the Port Authority two-and-a-half weeks later. (Read his complaint – embedded below. Seriously.)
And there’s more.
According to Wildstein, Christie knew that there was an obstacle to installing Speziale at the Port Authority: his name was Arthur Cifelli.
Cifelli, a longtime political and policy aide, had been the Port Authority’s acting deputy executive director under Gov. James McGreevey before being appointed as deputy superintendent of police and deputy director of public safety at the agency. The job is understood to be a political appointment, so there was no reason for Christie to keep Cifelli, a Democrat, in place.
Yet, according to Wildstein, Christie told the room full of aides that he had other reasons for wanting Cifelli gone.
Four years earlier, Christie had prosecuted a Democratic political boss and former state senate president named John Lynch. Lynch was a powerbroker in Trenton for decades, and used his influence over the brief tenure of Gov. Jim McGreevey to pocket thousands of dollars in bribes in connection with development projects on state-owned parkland. Prosecuting Lynch, Christie said at the time, was “the most significant” public corruption case he’d brought as U.S. Attorney.
According to Wildstein, Christie revealed to the room on that June 2010 day that Cifelli had testified before the federal grand jury that subsequently indicted Lynch. The governor also told the room that, in his view, Cifelli perjured himself while giving that testimony. Christie then said he had considered prosecuting Cifelli. According to Wildstein, Christie told the room that he wanted Cifelli’s employment with the Port Authority terminated to make way for Speziale. The governor “made it clear he would not have Cifelli working for his administration,” and told the room that he would discuss the matter with Port Authority board chairman David Samson, who knew both Cifelli and Lynch.
Here’s why this matters:
Under the Rule 6 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure concerning grand juries, it is a crime for government attorneys – including the U.S. Attorneys – to discuss secret grand jury proceedings outside of very specific official contexts. According to the manual the Department of Justice maintains for the nation’s ninety-three U.S. Attorneys and their deputies, breaking Rule 6 by making unauthorized disclosures of grand jury material can be prosecuted, both as a criminal contempt charge (18 USC § 401 (3)) and as a theft of government property (18 USC § 641).
Speziale and Cifelli could not be reached for comment. The governor’s office, in a statement to the Times, denied Wildstein’s claim as “lying or mistaken.” It should be noted, however, that Wildstein’s statement was made as he is being supervised by federal prosecutors preparing for fall 2015 trials of Bill Baroni and former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly on Bridgegate-related charges. Wildstein continues to await sentencing, the severity of which will depend on the outcome of those trials and his conduct during this period.
Moreover, according to sources, Cifelli did in fact testify before the grand jury in the Lynch case. This verification does not prove that Christie was the one who revealed this fact to Wildstein. Nevertheless, the universe of people who knew about Cifelli’s testimony was very limited before news outlets published Wildstein’s statement earlier today.
Brian Murphy is a history professor at Baruch College and TPM Contributing Editor who writes about the intersection of money and politics. He is the author Building the Empire State: Political Economy in Early America (Penn Press, 2015) and can be found at brianphillipsmurphy.com. You can follow him on Twitter @Burrite.