It’s Not Just the Bridge
By Alec MacGillis @AlecMacGillis
February 12, 2014
Has there ever been a political reversal of fortune as rapid and as absolute as the one just experienced by Chris Christie? At warp speed, the governor of New Jersey has gone from the most popular politician in the country to the most embattled; from the Republicans’ brightest hope for 2016 to a man with an FBI target on his back. One minute, he was releasing jokey vanity videos starring Alec Baldwin and assorted celebrity pals; the next, he was being ridiculed by his lifelong idol, Bruce Springsteen. Mere weeks ago, Christie was a straight-talking, corruption-busting everyman. Now, he is a liar, a bully, a buffoon.
What is remarkable about this meltdown is that it isn’t the result of some deep secret that has been exposed to the world, revealing a previously unimagined side to the candidate. Many of the scandals and mini-scandals and scandals-within-scandals that the national media is salivating over have been in full view for years. Even the now-infamous Bridgegate was percolating for months before it exploded into the first major story of the next presidential race.
Case in point: Last year, just before Thanksgiving, I traveled to Trenton to see Bill Baroni, Christie’s top staff appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, get grilled by state legislators about the closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September. It was clear that something fishy was going on. Baroni gave a command performance, defending the closures as part of a traffic study, but more than that, as a matter of justice. Discussing whether Fort Lee deserved three dedicated lanes during rush hour, Baroni demanded, “Is this fair?” His voice actually cracked with emotion. “And if it is not fair, how do you not study it?” But there were only a handful of reporters in the room to witness his melodramatics, and it was six weeks before the national media caught on to the story. Outside New Jersey, at least, it seemed inconceivable that Christie, good-government evangelist, scourge of Soprano State shenanigans, could preside over a piece of payback so outrageous and so petty.
Read More: Chris Christie’s Machine Politics Family Tree
Now, of course, we know that there was no traffic study and that the lanes were deliberately shut to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, who had declined to endorse Christie for reelection. (“Is it wrong that I’m smiling,” crowed a Christie aide in a text message, even as congestion got so dire that ambulance workers were forced to respond to an emergency on foot.) We also know that this act of retribution wasn’t an isolated incident: The mayor of Hoboken, to name just one example, has claimed that Christie’s office pressured her to approve a big development project represented by a Christie crony—or risk losing recovery aid for damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.
And yet, even post-Bridgegate, the prevailing interpretations of Christie fundamentally miss the mark. He has been so singularly successful at constructing his own mythology—as a reformer, a crusader, a bipartisan problem-solver—that people have never really seen him clearly. Over the past three months, I talked to more than 50 people who have crossed paths with Christie throughout his career—legislators, officials, Democrats, Republicans, lawyers, longtime New Jersey politicos. (Christie himself didn’t respond to a detailed request for comment.) The problem with Christie isn’t merely that he is a bully. It’s that his political career is built on a rotten foundation. Christie owes his rise to some of the most toxic forces in his state—powerful bosses who ensure that his vow to clean up New Jersey will never come to pass. He has allowed them to escape scrutiny, rewarded them for their support, and punished their enemies. All along, even as it looked like Christie was attacking the machine, he was really just mastering it.
Photo Illustration by Jacqueline Mellow
WOKE UP THIS MORNING AND ALL THAT LOVE HAD GONE
To understand Chris Christie, first you have to understand that he was raised to never give an inch. He grew up in the North Jersey suburb of Livingston, to parents descended from big Newark clans—Sicilian for his mother, Sandy; Irish-German for his father, Bill. The strength of their marriage was exceeded only by the strength of their opinions. They argued constantly—about money, about politics, about pretty much everything.
Chris, the oldest child, was the family mediator—reassuring his younger brother, Todd, and adopted sister, Dawn, or barging into the fray to take his mother’s side. Not that Sandy needed any help. Funny, relentless, and willing to punctuate her point with a raised middle finger, she got her way more often than not. “They demanded a lot out of us,” Todd Christie told his brother’s biographers, Bob Ingle and Michael Symons.
Anthony Hope, the baseball coach at Livingston High School, told me about a game when Chris got picked off third base, costing his team the win. That night, all the kids headed to the town’s big Battle of the Bands, except Chris. Hope, who was chaperoning, inquired where he was. He’d been grounded—because of the game.
The Christie brothers were close, but very different. Todd was a bro in the making—“an outgoing, happy-go-lucky type,” says Hope. Chris was the serious one, the type of kid who started running for office long before his first keg party. He was known for introducing himself to other kids on the playground as if he were a first-time candidate at the Iowa State Fair. (“Hi, I’m Chris Christie.”) By the third grade, he was piping up at PTA meetings to give his opinions on field trips and fund-raisers. Whenever the neighborhood boys played cowboys and Indians, Todd once reminisced, Chris always opted to be the sheriff. At the age of 14, at Sandy’s urging, he knocked on the front door of the local assemblyman, Tom Kean, and asked for advice on how to get elected.
Chris Christie and George Norcross
During Christie’s term, Democratic boss George Norcross has become more powerful than ever.
Since fate had placed Christie in New Jersey, he was about to get a very particular kind of political education. In his senior year, he was one of two students chosen to represent New Jersey in the Hearst Foundation’s Senate Youth Program. The students were to spend a week with their home-state senators, observing the legislative process from the inside out. Unfortunately for Christie and his partner, the day before they got to Washington, news broke of a massive FBI operation in which a federal agent posing as an Arab sheik had bribed elected officials with suitcases stuffed with cash.
Thus began the season of Abscam, the elaborate sting that would eventually reel in the mayor of Camden, six members of the House of Representatives, and New Jersey’s senior senator, Harrison Williams, among others. That week, Williams went to ground, and so, while all the other students got pictures in the group yearbook with both their senators, the Jersey kids only got a photo with one—Bill Bradley. “It was an incredible embarrassment,” Christie later recalled. “We were the butt of jokes all week.” In his telling, it was the defining moment that alerted him to “the problem of corruption in New Jersey.”
To say that corruption was a problem in the Garden State was an epic understatement—its political system might as well have been expressly designed to facilitate public fraud. The state’s official history is one of legendary self-dealers: Enoch “Nucky” Johnson built and ruled Prohibition-era Atlantic City from the ninth floor of the Ritz-Carlton. The midcentury mayor of Jersey City, Frank Hague, earned a salary of $8,500 a year and yet left office with a fortune of $2 million. His signature accoutrement, according to Jersey lore, was a desk with an outward-facing drawer in which visitors would deposit their bribes. As one mayor of Newark memorably put it, “There’s no money in being a congressman, but you can make a million bucks as mayor.”
In most of the United States, the big political machines have been broken, or reduced to wheezing versions of their former selves. In New Jersey, though, they’ve endured like nowhere else. The state has retained its excessively local distribution of power—566 municipalities, 21 counties, and innumerable commissions and authorities, all of them generous repositories of contracts and jobs. The place still has bona fide bosses—perhaps not as colorful as the old ones, but about as powerful. The bosses drum up campaign cash from people and firms seeking public jobs and contracts, and direct it to candidates, who take care of the bosses and the contributors—a self-perpetuating cycle as reliable as photosynthesis.
When a brash young Christie decided to wade into this swamp, casting himself as a reformer seemed like the smart thing to do. By the time he was 31, Christie had married his college sweetheart, Mary Pat (her first impression of him was as “a student government geek”), gone on to law school, and then to a small firm where he handled medical-malpractice cases and, later, securities litigation and some state lobbying. In 1994, he ran for a seat on the Board of Chosen Freeholders in Morris County, the prosperous exurb where he and Mary Pat, a Wall Street investment banker, had settled. It was time, he declared, for an end to the cycle of campaign contributions from those who did business with local government. “I’m sick and tired of people hiring their political friends,” he said.
But even as Christie was running against Jersey’s political culture, he was willing to borrow some of its uglier tactics. One afternoon, Ed Tamm Jr., a Republican he was challenging, got a call from a friend who asked if he’d seen a Christie ad that had just aired during the Devils game, alleging that Tamm and his fellow board members were under investigation. Alarmed, Tamm called the county prosecutor, who reassured him it wasn’t true. It was the final weekend before the Republican primary, leaving no time to respond, and Christie finished first, tossing Tamm and another Republican off the board. They sued him successfully for defamation, but years later, Tamm is still dumbfounded. “Politicians get hammered all the time, but there’s got to be an element of truth to it,” he told me.
Only four weeks after taking office, Christie announced that he was thinking of challenging a veteran Republican for the state Assembly. His ambition rankled local Republicans. “A lot of people were like, who does this guy think he is?” says Rick Shaftan, the campaign manager for another candidate. (So determined was Shaftan to beat Christie that, at one point, he went to a local crawfish festival and recruited some overweight drunk guys for an ad that depicted Christie wrestling opponents in a mud pit.) Christie lost that race. Two years later, local Republicans recruited challengers to knock him off the freeholder board, too. On election night, after Christie gave his concession speech, one of his nemeses smacked his lips in his direction and explained, “That’s just me kissing your fucking career goodbye.”
Mapping Chris Christie’s Power Plays
Christie had now spent tens of thousands of his family’s money and lost two races in a row. Not long after the election debacle, he had lunch with his Assembly running mate, Rick Merkt. “It was a couple of gut punches,” Merkt says of the defeats. But he saw a path forward for his friend. He suggested to Christie that “the federal route might give him another bite at the apple.” What Merkt meant was that, instead of running for election, Christie should try to get himself appointed to an influential post. In New Jersey, that meant engaging in precisely the sort of grubby glad-handing Christie had condemned. Still, he was in his late thirties and all he had to show for his foray into public life was a middling legal career and a lot of local Republicans who hated him. And so he took Merkt’s advice.
The “federal route” turned out to be quite straightforward. First, Christie sought the counsel of Bill Palatucci, a colleague at his firm. Years earlier, Palatucci had served as George W. Bush’s driver when he campaigned for his dad in New Jersey, and he advised Christie to raise money for Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. Christie and Palatucci proceeded to pull in $350,000, more than enough for Christie to qualify as a Bush “Pioneer”; he and Mary Pat also personally contributed $29,000 to Bush and other Republicans between 1999 and 2001. After the election, it came time for Bush to nominate a U.S. attorney for New Jersey, one of the biggest offices in the country. Palatucci pitched Christie to Karl Rove. It was a competitive field, and Christie had zero experience in criminal law; indeed, he had never so much as filed a motion in federal court. He got the nod.
Only after the September 11 attacks did his qualifications come under any heavy scrutiny. Suddenly, it didn’t seem like a terrific idea to appoint an untested, undistinguished lawyer to the district across the river from Ground Zero. The New Jersey Federal Bar Association, the Newark Star-Ledger, and the state’s junior senator, Jon Corzine, all criticized the choice. But the power to clear the nomination for a vote belonged to the state’s senior senator, Robert Torricelli. The two men met in Torricelli’s office, and the senator told Christie that, in light of the terrorist attacks, Bush was entitled to get the post filled fast. (It was no secret that he also liked the idea of a prosecutor with Italian-American roots, to counter ethnic stereotypes.) Torricelli told me that he imposed only one condition: Christie had to hire a “professional” as his deputy—that is, someone who knew his way around federal court. A few weeks later, Christie and Torricelli saw each other at a Christmas party, hours after the Senate had approved Christie’s nomination. Christie made a beeline for Torricelli to thank him and the two embraced.
Chris Christie and Joe Vincenzo
Christie has boasted that Joe DiVincenzo (center) has been with him “right from day one.”
Torricelli may have had other reasons to want Christie in the job. At the time, the rakish Democrat was under investigation for illegal fund-raising during the 1996 campaign. When it came time for Christie to select his “professional,” his first pick was a former federal prosecutor and close Torricelli confidante. Then it emerged that Christie’s choice had not been candid about a visit he paid to Torricelli’s home while it was under FBI surveillance, and Christie had to find someone else.
Soon afterward, Christie reshuffled the top staff in Newark. One of the apparent losers was Michael Guadagno, the head of the frauds division who had led the initial investigation into Torricelli. Christie sent Guadagno down to the satellite office in Trenton, a demotion that some in top legal and political circles linked to Guadagno’s work on the Torricelli case. “Christie exiled him to Trenton,” says one New Jersey legal veteran. (The case against Torricelli was dropped after he decided not to run for reelection. He told me he had “no knowledge” of Guadagno’s involvement and praised Christie’s performance as prosecutor: “Chris kept the commitment that he made to me.”)
It wasn’t the cleanest beginning. But Christie had a plan for quashing any doubts about how he got the job: He would unleash the full might of his office against corruption. Fighting public fraud, he announced, would be his office’s top priority after terrorism. “Corrupt politicians will steal your trust, your taxes, and your hope,” he told a New Jersey crowd in 2007. The problem was not, he noted, “an insufficient number of targets.”
Soon after Christie took office, Essex County’s Republican executive, Jim Treffinger, was out walking his dog when seven police cruisers surrounded him. Treffinger knew he was under investigation for awarding no-show jobs to friends and extorting campaign donations in exchange for contracts. He had repeatedly offered to surrender to authorities when the time came. Instead, his wife and daughter watched from the house as he was thrown up against a car and frisked, an image that appeared in the next day’s Star-Ledger, which had been tipped off to the arrest.
At first, Christie said the arrest had been left to the marshals. But later, he cast Treffinger’s treatment in moral terms. Corrupt officials, he said, shouldn’t be coddled—they were “worse than the street criminal because the street criminal never pretends to be anything but what he or she is.” (Local lawyers wondered whether the public shaming might be linked to Treffinger’s observation, caught on a wiretap, that Christie was a “fat fuck” who “wouldn’t know a law book from a cookbook.”) “The perception was that the U.S. attorney was sending a message,” one lawyer told me.
The next seven years unfolded like a never-ending perp walk, as Christie racked up more than 130 convictions and guilty pleas for elected and appointed officials. He had a knack for extracting the maximum p.r. from every arrest or indictment. “The office leaked like a sieve,” one Democratic operative recalls. “I had reporters calling me at four in morning and saying, [so and so] is going to get pinched.”
Democrats howled that Christie was on a partisan witch-hunt, since he targeted so many more Ds than Rs. But it was hard to take such accusations very seriously. After all, New Jersey’s power structure was dominated by Democrats, and Christie was uncovering undeniable cases of abuse. One state senator pleaded guilty for accepting a low-show job at a medical school in exchange for state grants, another to accepting a $25,000 “success fee” for helping a mining company obtain permit approvals. Longtime Newark Mayor Sharpe James got 27 months on charges stemming from the sale of steeply discounted city properties to an ex-girlfriend. (James’s successor, Cory Booker, is the first mayor of Newark not to be indicted since 1962.)
Besides, to accuse Christie of protecting Republicans over Democrats was missing the point. True, his office had knocked out a swath of New Jersey’s biggest Democratic power brokers and weakened their organizations in crucial parts of the state. But that meant the bosses left standing had only grown stronger.
In 2002, an insurance firm in Mt. Laurel received an unexpected e-mail from a man named George Norcross. Congratulations, Norcross told the firm: It had won a big contract for the Delaware River Port Authority, which oversees four bridges in the Philadelphia area. The e-mail was unexpected because the firm hadn’t bid for the job. But there was no need for thanks. The company was simply expected to send Norcross’s insurance company $410,000 over the next few years, as a “finder’s fee.”
This is how things work in the world of George Norcross III. Officially, he is the supremely wealthy chairman of Conner Strong & Buckelew, one of the largest insurance firms in the nation; the chairman of Cooper University Hospital in Camden; and, as of last year, the majority owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Unofficially, he is the most powerful man in New Jersey never to have held elected office. Close observers of state politics have estimated that more than 50 elected officials in South Jersey owe their positions to Norcross (including his brother, a state senator). Much of the money he raises for candidates comes from people and companies eager to secure government work or development deals, as documented over the years by his local paper, the Courier-Post, among others. Norcross’s own firm holds sway over New Jersey’s large municipal insurance market. (He declined to comment for this article.) “George is probably the smartest politician we have now in the state of New Jersey,” says former Republican State Senator John Bennett. “He knows where the power is and goes to the power. Whether that power is a Republican or Democrat.”
One reason that Norcross is so good at working the machine is that he was born into it. His father, George Norcross Jr.—“Big George”—was a much-loved union chieftain, and he would bring “Young George” along to meetings around the state with governors, state legislators, and CEOs. Young George would go on to drop out of college—Rutgers wasn’t teaching him anything about politics he didn’t already know—and start selling insurance out of a basement office. In 1989, after Big George was snubbed for a spot on the New Jersey Racing Commission, Norcross entered politics, motivated by a specific grudge against the legislator who’d stiffed his father and a more generalized resentment over the slighting of South Jersey. Thanks to Big George’s lessons and his own hyper-confidence, it wasn’t long before he gained control of Camden’s Democratic organization and set his sights on the rest of South Jersey. Today, Norcross is silver-haired and impeccably dressed and runs his operation out of well-appointed boardrooms. He is only foul-mouthed in private.
One Jersey Democrat described to me the first time he experienced the Norcross treatment. Not long after this politician announced his candidacy, he was summoned to a meeting with the man himself. Norcross was all magnanimity. “He said, ‘You don’t need to do anything. I’ll raise all the money. You just go out there and meet people,’ ” the candidate recalled.
There was no need for Norcross to spell out the rest of the arrangement: The fate of those who cross him is well known. When Bennett dared to oppose state financing for the arena of a minor-league hockey team Norcross co-owned, Norcross got in a shoving match with him at the State House. In the following months, a stream of critical stories about Bennett appeared in a paper edited by a Norcross friend, contributing to Bennett’s 2003 reelection loss. “He does everything in his power to go after you,” Bennett told me, almost admiringly. “He said, ‘I’m going to get you,’ and then he gets you.”
On numerous occasions, Norcross’s operation has come under legal scrutiny—from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), state investigators, and the FBI. The cases are labyrinthine, but they all involve some dubious overlap of his many public and private interests. One case in particular threatened to get real traction. In the early 2000s, several New Jersey attorneys general investigated whether he had pressured a Palmyra councilman to fire a city solicitor, Ted Rosenberg, who wasn’t cooperating with the machine. Wiretaps offered a rare glimpse of a man completely convinced of his power. “[Rosenberg] is history and he is done, and anything I can do to crush his ass, I wanna do cause I think he’s just a, just an evil fuck,” Norcross said. In another conversation, referring to then-top Jersey Democrats, he declared, “I’m not going to tell you this to insult you, but in the end, the McGreeveys, the Corzines, they’re all going to be with me. Not because they like me, but because they have no choice.” While discussing plans to remove a rival, he exclaimed: “Make him a fucking judge, and get rid of him!”
In February 2003, Norcross met Christie for a steak dinner at Panico’s in New Brunswick. It was, to put it mildly, highly unorthodox for a U.S. attorney to sit down with a political boss who was the subject of state and SEC attention. But Christie brushed off the criticisms. “I’m very careful with who I would go out with,” he said. “If I’m looking at somebody, I’d try to stay away from them.”
That, to the skeptics, was just the issue. His corruption squad was scrutinizing dozens of lower-profile figures, all the way down to an Asbury Park councilman charged for getting his driveway paved for free. Why wasn’t he looking at Norcross? And didn’t he realize that he might have to in future? Sure enough, the following year the state attorney general referred the Palmyra case to Christie’s office.
Two years later, Christie issued a scathing six-page letter announcing that he would not bring any charges against Norcross. It was a remarkable document. Not only did Christie openly declare a controversial figure to be home free, but he accused the state prosecutors of bungling the case so badly that they may have been shielding Norcross. “The allegation of some bad motive on the part of the state prosecutors is very unusual,” says Andrew Lourie, a former chief of the Public Integrity Section of the Department of Justice.
High-ranking legal sources in the state view the letter as the ultimate Machiavellian maneuver. They agree that there may not have been a strong case to bring against Norcross in the Palmyra case after so much time had lapsed. But by publicly accusing his state counterparts of protecting Norcross, Christie was inoculating himself against accusations of favoritism. One of the former attorneys general who’d handled the case, John Farmer, who went on to become senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission and is now dean of Rutgers Law School, told me: “The statements and insinuations contained in that letter were, as I said at the time, utter nonsense. The passage of time has only magnified their essential absurdity.”
Norcross may have been the most formidable player to escape Christie’s net, but he wasn’t the only one. Another was Brian Stack, a state legislator and Union City mayor who exemplifies a Jersey tradition Christie had long railed against: holding paid elected office at both the state and local levels. Stack maintains his constituents’ loyalty with acts of largesse such as doling out 15,000 free turkeys at Thanksgiving. He is rewarded with Soviet-style vote totals. (His slate won 92 percent in 2010.) In 2007, Christie conducted a massive investigation into legislative earmarks. It found that Stack had secured $200,000 in state grants that benefited a day-care center run by his then-wife. Charges were brought against other legislators for directing money to entities in which they held a personal interest, but not Stack.
There was also Joe DiVincenzo Jr., lumbering and gregarious, the protégé of legendary Newark community leader Steve Adubato Sr. In 2002, “Joe D.” ran to replace Treffinger as executive of Essex County, the largest source of Democratic votes in the state. Rumors raged that he, too, was under investigation, for conflicts between his freeholder duties and his job (one of four he held at the time) at a produce company with a county contract. Then, right in the heat of the primary, Christie released a statement denying that Joe D. was under investigation. “It was totally unprecedented. I’ve never seen that done by a sitting U.S. attorney,” said DiVincenzo’s opponent, now-Assemblyman Tom Giblin. “Trying to get a letter out of the U.S. attorney’s office is usually like pulling a wisdom tooth.” After Joe D. took office, he invited Christie to give county workers a symposium on ethics.
Finally, there was Glenn Paulsen of Burlington County, who had become the most powerful Republican power broker in the state in part because of his symbiotic détente with Norcross. Norcross got a lot of business for his insurance firm in Burlington County, while Paulsen’s law firm got plenty of municipal work in Norcross territory. In 2006, Christie’s office secured a guilty plea from a Republican operative, Robert Stears, for hugely overbilling several million dollars of lobbying work for the Burlington County Bridge Commission. According to one person with knowledge of the matter, it seemed likely that more revelations would follow and that an investigation of the commission’s spending could draw in Paulsen, and perhaps even Norcross. Stears, according to Christie’s announcement, was cooperating with an “ongoing criminal investigation.” In court, he explained that he had been “sucked into a corrupt group of people” and that he had been directed how much to bill the commission and how much to donate to the county Republican Party, which had been led by Paulsen. “Everyone was waiting for the second shoe to drop,” David Von Savage, the former GOP chairman in Cape May County, told me. It never did. “Chris essentially dumped that investigation—he absolutely dumped it,” says one lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “As a favor to these guys, he tanked the investigation completely.”
By taking down some of the state’s bosses while leaving others off-limits, Christie had effectively turned the supposedly apolitical role of prosecutor into that of kingmaker. It was a brilliant strategy. New Jersey offered such a target-rich environment that Christie was able to get credit for taking down a slew of crooked officials and build alliances with some of the most powerful bosses in the state at the same time. Christie’s allies insist that he wasn’t playing favorites. “I can’t imagine Christie would suggest in any way, ‘I want you to lay off of this guy or go after this guy.’ It’s inconceivable to me,” says Ed Stier, a former federal and state prosecutor. Still, by the end of his tenure, Christie began showing up to administer the swearing-in ceremonies of town officials who were replacing the ones he’d pursued. No one could recall a prosecutor doing so, says one longtime Jersey hand: “It was like he was giving them his blessing.”
Meet the Christie Machine
In 2004, Todd Christie started showing up at state GOP functions—at one, he distributed boxes of “Christie’s Popcorn” in a not-so-subtle attempt to build his brother’s brand. By now, Chris’s name was regularly surfacing as a potential gubernatorial candidate, although protocol prevented him from openly campaigning. Given this restriction, Todd proved to be a useful surrogate. A Wall Street trader, he had made $60 million when his firm was sold to Goldman Sachs. Not long before Christie’s nomination as U.S. attorney, he gave tens of thousands of dollars to county Republican organizations; not long afterward, he gave $225,000 to a subset of the Republican National Committee. Todd’s generosity won him entrée to exclusive events at the 2004 GOP convention—an ideal venue to talk up his brother. “You want to do everything you can to stay active at a time when he can’t,” he told a reporter. “I’m not shy in saying I’m one of the people who chirps in his ear that I think he would make a great governor.”
Even though Chris was prevented from overtly running for anything, there were ways he could use his position to quietly lay the groundwork. In 2007, Christie announced a $311 million settlement of a probe into kickbacks given by five manufacturers of knee and hip replacements. Rather than pressing charges, Christie opted for deferred prosecution agreements, under which the companies would pay a fine and accept outside monitors. This approach saved courtroom costs, but it also handed Christie the keys to what amounted to a lucrative patronage system.
In an unusual step for a prosecutor, he flew around the country meeting with the companies’ boards. The handful of people he selected as monitors all had one qualification in common: a personal connection with Chris Christie. John Ashcroft, Bush’s first attorney general and Christie’s former boss, got a contract worth as much as $52 million for 18 months of work. Another went to David Samson, a former Republican state attorney general and founder of one of the state’s most connected law firms. Yet another, for $10 million, went to Christie’s mentor, Herbert Stern, and his friend John Inglesino. Even Christie’s alma mater, Seton Hall Law School, got in on the act: Bristol-Myers Squibb endowed a $5 million professorship as part of its agreement.
There was one monitoring contract that was especially eye-catching. Here’s the backstory: In 2005, the SEC issued civil charges against 20 Wall Street floor traders, alleging that they had illegally traded for their firms’ accounts ahead of those of their customers. Todd Christie was among the 20. The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, David Kelley, followed up with criminal charges: 15 traders were marched across a plaza in downtown Manhattan in cuffs. But five of the people named in the SEC action were spared the public humiliation and the threat of a criminal conviction. Todd was one of them.
Todd’s absence from the criminal indictment puzzles lawyers on the case to this day. Unlike some of the traders who had been charged, he had handled his trades personally rather than relying on an assistant. And under the formula that authorities used to quantify the suspect trades, he ranked quite high—people both above and below him on the list were charged. “It had us scratching our heads,” said Julian Solotorovsky, who represented one of the accused traders.
Over time, the criminal cases crumbled. On the civil side, however, the traders agreed to a range of SEC settlements. Todd’s company paid a fine, and he acknowledged that he had engaged in “inappropriate trading.” Other lawyers from the case dismissed the notion that Todd Christie had gotten special treatment, saying there were plausible legal explanations for why he’d been spared a criminal charge. “David Kelley,” attorney Henry Putzel told me, “is as straight as they come.”
Two years after Kelley moved to private practice in late 2005, Chris Christie decided to award him one of the monitoring contracts. “What happened with [Todd] Christie was very fishy,” one of the skeptical lawyers told me. “When they skipped over him, I was stunned. And then I heard the other stuff [about the contract for Kelley], and I was like, Holy shit, it’s so blatant. In my opinion, [Todd] definitely got a pass because of his brother. I can’t think of any other reason.” Kelley rejected this suggestion, telling me: “If anybody tries to draw the inference that there was anything untoward in my appointment, they’re being silly and irresponsible and unknowing of the facts.”
House Democrats in Washington would eventually call a hearing on Christie’s use of deferred-prosecution agreements, and Christie was asked whether there was a “perception of a quid pro quo” when Kelley was awarded a contract after having let Todd off the hook. “No, sir, because my brother committed no wrongdoing and was found not to have committed any wrongdoing, both by the Southern District of New York and the SEC,” he answered. The answer begged for a follow-up. The SEC had found wrongdoing, and it was precisely the Southern District’s finding of no wrongdoing in his instance that was at issue1. But the lawmakers didn’t get a chance to press the matter, because moments later, Christie abruptly announced that he had to catch a train and walked out. “It was a strange hearing,” Tennessee Representative Steve Cohen told me. “He just got up and left.”
Todd Christie (right) is one of his brother’s most deep-pocketed boosters.
In late 2008, Christie announced his campaign for governor. His image as an enemy of cronyism served him well against Jon Corzine, who was widely derided as a creature of Wall Street. And behind the scenes, his years as U.S. attorney paid off in other ways. Brian Stack was conspicuously slow to endorse Corzine, while Norcross did not hide his lack of enthusiasm for the incumbent. Christie later recounted a telling encounter on the night of his first debate with Corzine, five weeks before he would win the race by four points. After the event, Christie was approached by Democratic State Senator Steve Sweeney, Norcross’s childhood friend who had become a linchpin of his machine. Sweeney told Christie: “I look forward to working with you.”
New Jersey’s governorship is the most powerful in the nation. It is the only statewide elected office, since the governor nominates attorneys general and treasurers. The governor also determines the size of the budget, fills hundreds of well-paying slots on the state’s many commissions and authorities, and doles out aid to its hundreds of towns and cities. No governor in modern memory has worked these levers as skillfully as Christie.
First, Christie filled top posts in his administration with loyalists from the U.S. attorney’s office. The most controversial hire was Michele Brown, a longtime close aide who had accompanied Christie on business trips as a prosecutor. During the campaign, it was revealed that Christie had given her a $46,000 loan and failed to disclose it on his tax returns. Christie named her his appointments secretary, a $140,000 post, and put her in the office directly outside his own, a spot typically reserved for the chief counsel. The proximity got tongues wagging, and in 2012, Christie installed Brown as director of the Economic Development Authority, a $225,000 post in an office a block away. (Christie joked that he had been forced to rely on former colleagues because so few people answered his ad: “Wanted: People willing to work for a moody, passive-aggressive, demanding, outspoken, unreasonable, fat bully—to make miracles happen in Trenton.”)
Next, Christie hit the road to sell his ambitious plan to clean up the state’s finances—slashing wasteful spending, cutting unsustainable benefits for public employees, and reining in absurdly high property taxes. In the process, he perfected a political persona that was somehow enormously appealing in spite of itself. Christie could be charming when he felt like it: Sometimes, he would pace the stage, stand-up comedian-style, dispensing observational humor about public pensions. More often, though, he was just plain aggressive. At one meeting, as one teacher rose to earnestly question his agenda, Christie sloughed off his suit jacket as if it were a boxer’s robe. “If what you want to do is put on a show and giggle every time I talk, then I have no interest in answering your question,” he said. The crowd swooned; the clip got 1.3 million hits on YouTube. (“I love the guy!” said a township committeeman afterward.) Insults that Christie has publicly hurled at his antagonists—reporters, lawmakers, citizens, little old ladies—include, but are not limited to: “stupid,” “jerk,” “idiot,” “hack,” “ignoramuses,” “thugs,” “big shot,” “losers,” and “numb-nuts.”
It’s no easy feat to become a political hero by yelling at schoolteachers, and yet Christie has managed it. Just as he carefully cultivated his image as an anti-corruption crusader while he was U.S. attorney, as governor, Christie has presented himself as the implacable enemy of fiscal irresponsibility. Even his weight, so often the subject of disparaging speculation among national reporters, has worked to his advantage in these settings. Christie utterly dominates a room—planted center stage, an immovable force. His willingness to get in the face of his critics, his refusal to budge—it all gives the impression of a rare politician who cannot be co-opted or cowed.
And yet right from the outset, Christie was working as closely with the machine as any recent governor. Well before his election, the Democratic bosses had met at the U.S. Open in Queens to divvy up the leadership spoils. Sheila Oliver, who worked under Joe D. in Essex County, would become the speaker of the Assembly. Sweeney would get the Senate presidency. Sweeney was a union man—an ironworker—but he was a Norcross man first and foremost.* When it came time for the vote on Christie’s proposal to cut public-employee pensions and health benefits, Sweeney delivered the numbers. It was a coup for Christie—national pundits hailed him as a politician more interested in getting results than scoring partisan points.
In hindsight, what is notable is how openly Christie embraced the bosses. He sent massive resources in their direction; when they came under fire, he vouched for them. In early 2011, it emerged that Stack’s wife, now estranged, had been allowed to use city SUVs for personal use and fill up for free at the city’s natural gas pumps. Christie defended him: “I have no reason to question Brian Stack’s integrity.” (Stack returned the compliment, calling Christie “the greatest governor the state has ever had.”) On paper, Union City embodies the kind of waste that Christie has vowed to eliminate—it paid its police chief a handsome $248,000 in 2011 and provides health benefits to part-time elected officials. And yet it has been showered with cash from Trenton—about $12 million per year in discretionary “transitional aid.”
Christie’s bond with DiVincenzo was just as overt. Corzine’s attorney general had led an investigation into voter fraud by election workers in Essex County, after reams of absentee ballots were filled out to benefit Joe D.-approved candidates. Following Christie’s election, the case was quickly wrapped up with a handful of light sentences for low-level workers. During his term, Essex County has been deluged with millions for big capital projects. The relationship has thrived despite 2012 revelations by The Star-Ledger that Joe D., who makes $153,000 per year on top of a $68,000 pension for the same job (via a legal loophole), has claimed an astonishing list of reimbursements from his campaign funds for personal expenses, such as a trip to Puerto Rico and more than 100 meals over the course of three months. In 2011, Christie observed that Joe D. had been with him “right from day one.”
As for George Norcross, he is more powerful than ever. “It’s not just South Jersey anymore. Now it’s way beyond that,” says the longtime Jersey hand. Christie consented to Norcross’s pick to lead the patronage goldmine that is the Delaware River Port Authority.* The following year, the authority gave a $6 million grant to a cancer center at Norcross’s Cooper University Hospital. Next, Christie pushed through a controversial measure that granted Norcross his desired merger between Rutgers-Camden and nearby Rowan University.2 The result was a well-funded university that will further expand the Norcross empire—boosting beleaguered Camden, yes, but also putting even more jobs, money, and development projects at his disposal. (A former Navy SEAL attending Rutgers-Camden challenged the merger at a town-hall meeting. As he was escorted out by police, Christie hollered after him: “After you graduate from law school, you conduct yourself like that in a courtroom, your rear end is going to be thrown in jail, idiot!”)
Christie’s administration had set out to change the way Trenton did business. But its behavior has turned out to be all too familiar. Those with close ties to the governor have thrived. According to one senior lawyer, it was made clear to supplicants that their prospects would improve if they hired the lobbying firms that employed Samson (now the Port Authority chairman) and Palatucci (the Bush connection). A Louisiana company that wanted to win the $68 million contract for overseeing Sandy relief funds brought on Glenn Paulsen, the GOP power broker from Burlington County. Last May, Paulsen’s law firm made a $25,000 donation to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie leads, and soon afterward the Louisiana company got the Sandy job. Torricelli, too, has flourished as a lobbyist in the Christie era.
Any hard feelings Michael Guadagno might have had about his 2002 move to Trenton would seem to have been allayed: Christie named Guadagno’s wife to be his running mate in 2009 and he himself was elevated to an appellate judgeship three years later.* But there was no lenience for those who bucked the system. Take Democratic State Senator and former Acting Governor Richard Codey, a Norcross nemesis. First, Christie slashed funding for an anti-postpartum-depression program founded by Codey’s wife. Then, Codey’s former chief of staff lost his state job and Codey’s cousin was fired from his high-paying post at the Port Authority. A personnel report on the cousin’s sexual harassment of another man, years earlier, was leaked to the press. Legislators told me of seeing GOP colleagues who had threatened to defy Christie on key votes leaving his office in tears or drenched with sweat.
In early 2013, as Christie’s reelection neared, the operation kicked into overdrive. Christie was fixated on securing Democratic endorsements to bolster his image as a Republican with crossover appeal. It didn’t matter that he was expected to waltz back into office—people needed to get on the list. The administration’s intergovernmental-affairs staff, who knew which mayor or county official had gotten which grant, was moved almost wholesale to the campaign. Christie himself made repeated calls to mere county-level officers: clerks, sheriffs, registers of deeds.
For those who got behind the governor, there were incentives. To give but one example: The close-knit Orthodox community in Lakewood had endorsed Corzine in 2009. In March, a coalition of the town’s rabbis and businessmen announced it would be backing Christie this time around. Two months later, the state granted $10.6 million in building funds to an Orthodox rabbinical school in Lakewood, one of the largest expenditures for any private college in the state. (The yeshiva was not exactly cash-strapped: A copy of its application I obtained noted that its endowment “far exceeded” the $1.84 million it was expected to contribute to the project.)
As Election Day neared, you could be forgiven for mistaking Christie for a Democrat. State Republicans were frozen out; candidates were told not to include his name or picture on their literature. “We didn’t get the support,” says George Wagoner, a losing Assembly candidate. Meanwhile, the weight of the Democratic machine swung behind the Republican governor. More than 50 Democratic elected officials endorsed Christie, including Brian Stack (who was hit with a $68,725 fine in July for failing to properly disclose campaign spending) and Joe D. (who also has a large fine looming). In photos and media appearances, Christie kept showing up smiling alongside Sweeney and other prominent Democrats. Norcross didn’t formally endorse Christie, but he made his approval clear. At one event, Norcross said he’d recently seen a man in a “Chris Christie: too big to fail” t-shirt. He told Christie: “You’re not too big to fail—you’re too good and too important to fail us.”
Meanwhile, Barbara Buono, the state senator who had volunteered to challenge Christie when more prominent Democrats, such as Cory Booker, declined, was unable to raise anywhere near enough money for a credible campaign. Numerous Democratic donors refused to give above the $300 threshold where their names would be disclosed, fearing Christie’s retribution. “I’d say to people, ‘What is going on?’ ” Buono recalls. “This is an election, not a military junta.” She attended one campaign rally in a North Jersey church, at which Sheila Oliver, once a reliable ally of the bosses, railed against unnamed powerful people who were supporting Christie only because he had a “dossier” on them. A month before the election, a picture surfaced on Twitter of Christie and Norcross, arm in arm at a Cowboys-Eagles game in Philadelphia. “I didn’t think [Norcross] would embrace me,” says Buono. “But I didn’t think he’d work directly against me.” In the end, Christie won by 22 points and Republicans gained not a single seat in the state Senate.
And now we come to the national uproar over the mother of all traffic jams in Fort Lee. Christie has denied any knowledge of the ruse. But it has become increasingly hard to credit his ignorance, given how deeply involved he had been in his team’s political outreach to local officials, not to mention that the names of many of his closest aides were surfacing in communications about the closures. Among national Republicans, even some of Christie’s most vocal backers have started to waver. One Republican strategist told me: “No one’s rushing out there to defend him, because they don’t know where this could go next.”
The Democratic bosses, though, are standing by their man. Norcross declared that, instead of obsessing over the bridge, national Democrats should be “pretty concerned about circumstances involving the implementation of Obamacare right now.” Joe D. struck a blasé tone: “Every place I go, people say, ‘What do I care? Why are we talking about it?’ ” And Brian Stack blasted the claim that Christie had threatened to withhold Sandy aid from Hoboken as “far-fetched.” “My relationship with the governor and his staff and this administration has been one of the best,” Stack said—as if that wasn’t part of the problem.
What Bridgegate has laid bare is the skill and audacity with which Christie constructed his public image. “It’s almost like people were in a trance,” Buono told me. Christie may have been misunderstood for so long because his transactionalism diverted from the standard New Jersey model. He wasn’t out to line his own pockets, or build a business empire. He wasn’t even seeking to advance a partisan agenda. And yet it was transactionalism all the same. Christie used a corrupt system to expand his own power and burnish his own image, and he did it so artfully that he nearly came within striking distance of the White House. When he got cozy with Democratic bosses, people only saw a man willing to work across the aisle. When he bullied his opponents, they only saw a truth-teller. It was one of the most effective optical illusions in American politics—until it wasn’t.
Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic.
*Corrections: This article initially misstated Steve Sweeney’s former trade. The title of the Delaware River Port Authority official whom Gov. Christie consented to keeping on, John Mattheussen, was CEO, not chairman. And Michael Guadagno’s promotion to an appellate judgeship was made by the state’s chief judge, a gubernatorial appointee.
(1) I interviewed Kelley in connection with this story. Soon after it was published, he called to clarify details about the investigation. Kelley says it is not accurate to say his prosecutors found no wrongdoing. Rather, they did not find sufficient evidence of wrongdoing that would allow them to bring a criminal case. He says they forwarded their findings to the SEC.
(2) Opponents of Norcross’ push to merge Rutgers-Camden and Rowan note that they succeeded in limiting the new alliance to the health sciences arms of the institutions.