What the bridge scandal says about the Governor’s political style, and his future.
The Political Scene APRIL 14, 2014 ISSUE
BY RYAN LIZZA
On April 1st, Chris Christie, the beleaguered Republican governor of New Jersey, attended a celebrity roast, in Newark, to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Brendan Byrne, the state’s governor from 1974 to 1982. “He’s an inspiration,” Christie told the audience, referring to Byrne, who won reëlection against long odds, because he has “shown that political comebacks can actually happen.”
Christie sat on a long dais with five former governors and five local comedians, listening to the guitarist John Pizzarelli sing an ode to the state: “I may leave for a week or two, but I’m always coming back.” Christie was seated next to former Governor Thomas Kean, a longtime supporter, but he did not say hello or shake his hand, and he glared at the comedians as they delivered their lines. “You scare the shit out of me,” Stewie Stone said to Christie during his routine.
Just five months earlier, Christie had won a sweeping reëlection, securing nineteen of New Jersey’s twenty-one counties, sixty per cent of the vote, and endorsements from Democratic officeholders. He won fifty-one per cent of the Hispanic vote and twenty-one per cent of the African-American vote. His plan was to shed part of his Jersey persona, and perhaps a few more pounds, and begin in earnest the transition from state politician to Presidential candidate.
But the past was catching up with him. In September, an unusual incident had occurred in Fort Lee, the small town on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. Without warning, the number of access lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge’s toll plaza had been reduced from three to one. The lanes were closed for four days, and the resulting traffic jams caught the attention of several Democratic legislators. They opened an investigation and eventually accused the Christie administration of engineering a plot to punish the town’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, for his failure to endorse Christie’s reëlection. The accusation seemed so ludicrous that Christie belittled a reporter for asking about it. “I moved the cones, actually, unbeknownst to everybody,” he said during a press conference in early December. But on January 8th an e-mail surfaced showing that Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, had instructed David Wildstein, who was the Governor’s second-highest appointee at the Port Authority, the agency that runs the bridge, to engineer the gridlock. Months of scrutiny and withering criticism followed, and Christie’s approval rating fell twenty points.
From left: Bridget Kelly, Bill Baroni, David Wildstein
Christie had spent the week before the Byrne event trying to repair the damage. He hired lawyers who, on March 27th, released a report declaring that he knew nothing about the plan and placing the blame on Kelly and Wildstein. The next weekend, Christie flew to Las Vegas and met with Sheldon Adelson, a right-wing billionaire who is looking for a Presidential candidate to fund. Christie managed to offend Adelson, who is a major supporter of the conservative Likud Party, in Israel, by publicly referring to the “occupied territories,” a term to which Adelson objects. (“Occupied territories” is common parlance among both Democrats and Republicans, but Christie, fearful of losing Adelson’s favor, apologized.)
The Newark roast wasn’t going well, either. The speakers aimed much of their fire at Christie. “You knew whose ass to kiss,” Stone said, referring to Christie’s trip to Vegas. “ ‘Whatever you say, Sheldon! Whatever you say!’ ” Vince August, a New Jersey judge turned comedian, noted, “It really is an honor to be standing next to what could be the next President of the—.” He shuffled some papers on the lectern. “I’m sorry, these are the wrong notes. I’m doing a roast next week with Jeb Bush.” Even Byrne got in a dig, about Christie’s waistline. “Somebody referred to that bronze statue of me that’s in the courthouse,” he said. “Actually, that was supposed to be Governor Christie, but they didn’t have enough money to pay for all that bronze.”
Joy Behar, the former co-host of “The View,” was even more pointed. “When I first heard that he was accused of blocking off three lanes on the bridge, I said, ‘What the hell is he doing, standing in the middle of the bridge?’ ” After another barb, Christie interrupted her. “This is a Byrne roast,” he said. He stood up and tried to grab her notes. The audience laughed awkwardly. “Stop bullying me,” Behar said as he sat down. Christie said something out of earshot and Behar responded, “Why don’t you get up here at the microphone instead of being such a coward?” Christie stood up again and moved in front of the lectern as Behar retreated. “At least I don’t get paid for this,” he said.
Christie sat down and Behar continued, though she was noticeably rattled. “I really don’t know about the Presidency,” she said. “Let me put it to you this way, in a way that you’d appreciate: You’re toast.”
Before the bridge scandal, Christie was known as a governor who transcended New Jersey’s reputation for toxic politics and toxic dumps. He took on the exploding costs of the state’s pension system, reformed property taxes, and worked with his opponents in the legislature, and he provided decisive leadership after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. But the scandal hinted at a darker story line: that Christie’s barrelling style, and the dealmaking that had secured his rise through New Jersey politics, might as easily undo him.
Recently, Governor Kean, during a long interview in his office, in Far Hills, New Jersey, forty-five minutes west of Manhattan, told me that he has reconsidered his support of Christie. Kean is now seventy-eight years old; he served from 1982 to 1990 and is a revered figure in state politics. He became well known nationally when, in 2002, George W. Bush appointed him chairman of the 9/11 Commission, the widely praised investigation into the 2001 terrorist attacks. Kean is also arguably the most important political figure in Christie’s career. Christie was born in Newark in 1962, but, after race riots there in the summer of 1967, his parents moved to suburban Livingston, which, like Newark, is in Essex County, the most Democratic county in New Jersey. When Christie was fourteen years old, he heard Kean, who was then a member of the state legislature, speak at his junior high school. He told his mother that he wanted to become a politician; she drove him to Kean’s house and told him to knock on the legislator’s door.
“Sir, I heard you speak,” he told Kean. “I think I want to get into politics. How do I do it?”
“I’m going up to speak in Bergen County tonight,” Kean told him. “Why don’t you come with me and see if you like it?”
Kean became Christie’s political mentor. Christie, who was class president throughout high school, practiced a kind of suburban political activism. When a local diner barred him and his friends, because, the owner said, they didn’t order any food, he organized a boycott. (The owner eventually negotiated a settlement with Christie.) When Christie’s position as the starting catcher on the high-school baseball team was threatened by a transfer student, Christie and his father briefly considered taking action to block the student’s enrollment. Christie was benched for most of the season.
Christie worked on Kean’s gubernatorial campaigns, and in 2001, when Christie was nominated by Bush to be the United States Attorney for New Jersey, Kean wrote a letter validating his qualifications. When Christie ran for governor, in 2009, Kean told me, he was the first major figure to endorse him. “I campaigned with him a lot, and raised money for him,” he said. On Election Night last November, Kean spent time with Christie and his family before his victory speech, which was nationally televised. But they hadn’t spoken since that evening. Christie has a way of distancing allies, and he and Kean have had a falling out.
“He doesn’t always try to persuade you with reason,” Kean said. “He makes you feel that your life’s going to be very unhappy if you don’t do what he says.” He added that one of Christie’s flaws “is that he makes enemies and keeps them. As long as you’re riding high, they’ll stay in the weeds, because they don’t want to get in your way. But you get in trouble, they’ll all come out of the weeds, and come at you.” Although I didn’t ask, Kean told me that if Christie ran for President he wouldn’t necessarily endorse him. “I haven’t decided whether I’m going to support him or not,” Kean said. “There are a lot of people I don’t know that well”—he mentioned John Kasich, Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush, among other potential 2016 Republican Presidential nominees—“and I’d like to get to know them better.”
Gov. Chris Christie and Former Gov. Thomas H. Kean
Christie has sometimes found himself embarrassed by his state’s unique political culture. He had a distant relative who was a mobster, whom he once visited in jail. On a trip to Washington in 1980, as a high-school senior, he and a classmate were scheduled to meet their senators, Harrison Williams and Bill Bradley. The day before they arrived, news broke of a major sting operation involving several members of Congress, among them Williams, who was later indicted. An F.B.I. agent posing as a representative of a wealthy Arab sheikh had tried to bribe them. (The scandal, known as Abscam, was the subject of last year’s film “American Hustle.”) Senator Williams cancelled his meeting with the students, and Christie later said that he and his friend were “ashamed, and we got made fun of all week,” according to “Chris Christie: The Inside Story of His Rise to Power,” Bob Ingle and Michael Symons’s thorough biography.
Christie went to the University of Delaware, where he became the student-body president, and where he met his future wife, Mary Pat Foster, who was also involved in student government. In 2009, a former college friend told the Newark Star-Ledger that she was awestruck watching Christie lobby state officials for extra funding for the school. He went to law school at Seton Hall, and when he graduated, in 1987, he joined Dughi & Hewit, a small firm in Union County, which was another Democratic stronghold.
In 1992, Christie volunteered for the George H. W. Bush campaign, where he got to know Bill Palatucci, the executive director of both of Bush’s Presidential campaigns in New Jersey, which was then a more competitive state for Republicans. “We spent virtually every day together in the fall of 1992,” Palatucci told me. “He had a bird’s-eye view of a Presidential campaign in a targeted state with a lot of resources.” After Bush lost, Palatucci, who had a law degree but hadn’t practiced, joined Christie’s law firm, and they became a team. “He was teaching me how to practice law, and I was teaching him how to practice politics,” he said. “From the ’92 campaign he had made a lot of friends and contacts, and so he started to investigate, with my help, finding the right office to run for.” There was little prospect of winning a race in Essex or Union County, and Christie moved farther west, to Mendham Township, in Morris County, which is dominated by the Republican Party.
Bill Palatucci, a Republican insider in New Jersey and a longtime political mentor to Christie. (William Perlman/Newark Star-Ledger)
Christie’s first attempts to get to Trenton, the state capital, as a lawmaker came to an ignoble end. In 1993, Christie tried to unseat the Republican state senator John Dorsey, who happened to be the majority leader, and therefore one of the most important Republicans in the state. Richard Merkt, a longtime G.O.P. politician in the area, told me that local Republicans were shocked. Sitting in a booth at the Morristown Diner, Merkt talked about Christie’s early years. “Chris was a brash kid,” he said. “He moves into Morris County and pretty quickly decides that he wants to be not a member of the governing body of the town, not a mere freeholder”—a county commissioner—“not even a mere assemblyman, but he wants to be a state senator right out of the box, because he used to deliver literature for Tom Kean during his gubernatorial campaigns. That was his credential. His reach exceeded his grasp.”
New Jersey has five hundred and sixty-six municipalities, made up of towns, townships, boroughs, and villages. About a third of these entities are smaller than two square miles. Christie began collecting petitions to get his name on the ballot in Mendham Borough, which he may not have known was not in the same municipality as his new home town, Mendham Township, and was outside the district he wanted to represent. Dorsey, his opponent, challenged Christie’s petition and officials found dozens of invalid signatures. His name wasn’t allowed on the ballot. “That campaign collapsed rather rapidly,” Merkt said.
Christie lowered his expectations and, for his second campaign, ran for freeholder. This time, he was a reform candidate, promising to restore honest government, and he produced a TV ad charging that three of his opponents in the nine-person Republican primary were being “investigated by the Morris County prosecutor,” a serious accusation that happened to be false. Christie won the primary and then the general election, in part by assuring a more socially moderate electorate, “I am pro-choice.” But his victory was marred by the divisiveness of the campaign. The three victims of Christie’s false ad, including a freeholder named Cecilia Laureys, successfully sued him for defamation, and, after he lost an appeal, as part of the settlement he was forced to apologize to them in local newspapers. Laureys died last July, but her son, Christopher, who was her communications director, told me, “This was beyond the pale of what anyone had ever done in politics in Morris County. He was a lawyer who said they were being criminally investigated. He looked into the camera and lied.”
Portrait of the Governor as a Young Man
Chris Christie’s 1994 campaign ad – The Washington Post
Within weeks of his swearing-in, Christie started planning a campaign for a state-assembly seat. In the open Republican primary in Morris County, the two candidates with the highest number of votes become the Party’s two nominees for the assembly, and candidates sometimes run together, as a pair. In 1995, Merkt teamed up with Christie. “It turned out to be the worst mistake I ever made in politics,” he told me. The incumbent assemblyman, Anthony Bucco, had supported Christie’s freeholder campaign, so he was surprised that Christie was trying to oust him from his job. Christie attacked him for supporting a repeal of New Jersey’s assault-weapons ban, calling the idea “dangerous” and “crazy.” After the campaign, Bucco described Christie’s style of politics as “character assassination.” In a Republican primary, which attracts the most conservative voters, Christie’s pro-choice record and anti-gun position were not embraced. He came in fourth.
Two years later, he lost his freeholder seat. “The folks he had torpedoed with the phony charge came back and used it against him,” Merkt said. Christie came in fifth out of five candidates. “ONCE-RISING STAR IN MORRIS FINDS IT HARD TO EMPTY DESK,” the headline in the Star-Ledger read, on December 21, 1997. Christie went back to his law firm and, in 1998, registered as a lobbyist, along with Palatucci. But that fall, when George W. Bush was reëlected governor of Texas, Christie saw an opportunity to reënter politics. Palatucci had first met Bush in 1988, when Bush came to New Jersey to campaign for his father and Palatucci picked him up at the airport. Ten years later, Palatucci bumped into Bush in a hotel in New Orleans just days after his reëlection as governor, and Bush introduced him to Karl Rove, his political strategist. Soon afterward, Palatucci took New Jersey’s top Republicans to Austin to endorse Bush’s nascent run for President. Christie tagged along. “He’s this former county official who got booted out of office!” Palatucci said. “Going there with the state senate president, the speaker, a couple of key state legislators, key county chairmen, and the best fund-raiser in New Jersey.” The group made three trips to Texas and locked up New Jersey, and Christie became Bush’s campaign lawyer for the state.
In mid-2000, a Bush victory looked plausible, and Christie became interested in the job of U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. That fall, Palatucci mailed Christie’s résumé to Rove, and Kean added his letter of support. Bush announced Christie’s nomination on December 7th. Christie—a lobbyist, fund-raiser, and failed local politician—had no criminal or prosecutorial experience. “He wasn’t the most qualified,” Kean told me. “Just on legal expertise and law-enforcement expertise, there were people who wanted the nomination who were better qualified.”
Palatucci said that Christie was a good lawyer and a good communicator, and “he’d worked really hard for George Bush.” He added, “Others had bits and pieces of those three qualifications, but they didn’t have all three the way Chris did.” The politics of 9/11 secured Christie’s confirmation. Democrats had no interest in fighting Bush, whose approval rating reached ninety per cent. “In light of current events and the need for strong and immediate actions by the U.S. Attorney’s office in the war on terrorism,” New Jersey’s two senators, Jon Corzine and Robert Torricelli, both Democrats, said in a joint statement, “it is important to honor President Bush’s choice for this position.”
Christie was the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey from January 17, 2002, until December 1, 2008. Less than a year afterward, he was elected governor. By all accounts, he was adept at using the powers of the U.S. Attorney’s office, which has strict rules about engaging in politics, to build a public profile and consolidate power in an increasingly Democratic state.
One Democrat who benefitted from Christie’s ascent was Joseph DiVincenzo, the Essex County executive, who is considered the most powerful Democrat in North Jersey. “Anybody who runs statewide has to come through us,” he told me. Last year, he endorsed Christie’s reëlection. DiVincenzo, whom everyone calls Joe D., is sixty-one, and grew up in Newark. His father was a supervisor at a pickle company in nearby Perth Amboy, and his mother worked for the Charms candy company. I met with DiVincenzo in late February in his office, in Newark, during a weekly meeting with staff members from the county’s department of public works. They sat around a conference table in a room decorated with stuffed animals and faded forest-themed tapestry, reviewing a list of twenty-five major construction projects: a seven-million-dollar job to improve Turtle Back Zoo, in West Orange; a two-million-dollar bridge project for the Orange Reservoir. DiVincenzo had talked to Christie on the phone earlier in the day, and after the meeting he travelled to Trenton to meet with him privately. “The Republicans get upset with the Governor because of my friendship with him,” DiVincenzo told me. “They get upset because they feel Joe D. gets everything.”
DiVincenzo’s relationship with Christie began after F.B.I. agents raided the office in which we were sitting, in 2002. At the time, the office was occupied by James Treffinger, DiVincenzo’s predecessor, who was a Republican and was being investigated for corruption. Treffinger was running for the U.S. Senate against Torricelli, and DiVincenzo, who was president of the county board of freeholders, one floor above, was running to replace Treffinger. A few months after searching Treffinger’s office, federal agents arrested him on various charges, including mail fraud, leading him away in handcuffs and leg irons as the media took photos. The Star-Ledger reported that some prosecutors in Christie’s office “were appalled, and saw it as a cheap attempt to score political points.” Treffinger pleaded guilty to two of the charges against him, and served thirteen months in jail.
I asked DiVincenzo about his early impression of Christie as the U.S. Attorney. “Scared shit of him!” he said. “The guy was on a mission.” DiVincenzo said that his opponent in the 2002 race tried to connect him to Treffinger by running an ad with footage of the F.B.I. agents removing boxes from the government building in Newark that they shared. In the middle of the campaign, Christie sent DiVincenzo’s lawyers a letter saying that their client was “not a subject or target of the grand jury investigation.” DiVincenzo won the race.
Chris Christie, left, gets the endorsement of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo at McLoone’s Boat House in West Orange, N.J.
Christie, intent on running for office, made corruption his central issue. Public cynicism about politicians, especially in New Jersey, was high, and the local press loved tales of political scandals. Christie already had a connection to an influential new political Web site, then known as PoliticsNJ and later as PolitickerNJ, run by an anonymous blogger, who received regular scoops from Christie’s office. In addition, New Jersey’s thirteen hundred units of local government—municipalities, school districts, fire districts, and local authorities that deal with sewage and other services—made the state a good target for political stings, with thousands of people responsible for handing out government contracts. From his days as a freeholder, when he campaigned as a reformer, Christie was intimately familiar with the patronage and pay-for-play ethos at the local level. He initiated his own Abscam-style operations. DiVincenzo recalls Christie saying, “If you’re getting an envelope with cash, it’s coming either from your mother, because it’s your birthday, or from one of my agents. Don’t take it unless it’s your mother.”
Some politicians took the envelopes, and even some who didn’t became ensnared. In 2003, Governor Jim McGreevey, a Democrat, was caught on tape using a code word that signalled to a Christie informant that McGreevey was privy to an illegal scheme for gathering campaign contributions. Christie had chosen the code word “Machiavelli.” McGreevey insisted that his use of the word was coincidental, but the scandal escalated until, on August 12, 2004, the Governor announced his resignation, revealing that he was “a gay American.” Although McGreevey’s lover had been threatening to file a sexual-harassment lawsuit that would expose their relationship, Christie’s criminal investigation seemed to be a factor in McGreevey’s decision.
Former Gov. James McGreevey announces his resignation during a 2004 press conference.
Even as Christie was investigating McGreevey, he was considering running to replace him, but when he realized that he would face a competitive primary he decided to skip the race. In 2005, Corzine, the former head of Goldman Sachs, won a relatively comfortable victory over the Republican Douglas Forrester, a former mayor of West Windsor. By early 2006, Christie had prosecuted eighty-six political figures. DiVincenzo had consolidated his power in Essex County; two people on his payroll were state senators, and still are. He told me that he regularly called Christie to vet people who wanted to work for Essex County. “If I was interested in hiring somebody,” DiVincenzo said, “I would kick it off him.” If the person had issues, Christie would tell DiVincenzo, “You should keep searching.”
As a student, Christie had expressed shame at the corruption of state politicians. As an investigator, he rooted it out with a heavy hand. In April, 2006, a con artist named Solomon Dwek was arrested for trying to cash a fraudulent twenty-five-million-dollar check at a drive-through bank window. In return for a lighter sentence, Dwek’s lawyer offered to make Dwek a confidential informant for Christie, according to “The Jersey Sting,” by Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin, a detailed insider account of the operation. Dwek promised that he could infiltrate his own Syrian Jewish community, but Christie and his prosecutors gave Dwek a second assignment: exposing political corruption. Christie unleashed Dwek on Hudson County and the surrounding area, and Dwek worked for him for the next three years.
Solomon Dwek is the central figure in a three-year undercover sting operated by the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office that became known as Bid Rig III.
Dwek’s Hudson County sting was unlike any investigation in the state since Abscam. Dwek posed as a developer seeking to fast-track construction projects by repeatedly offering politicians FedEx envelopes filled with thousands of dollars. The future mayor of Hoboken took one. The mayor of Secaucus took one. The deputy mayor of Jersey City took one. As Dwek infiltrated the county, Christie turned his attention to Robert Menendez, then a Jersey City congressman, who was running for the Senate against the former Governor’s son, Thomas Kean, Jr. In September, 2006, weeks before Election Day, Christie subpoenaed information from a nonprofit organization that rented office space from Menendez, who had helped the group receive federal funds. News of the subpoenas, and an investigation into a potential quid pro quo, leaked to the press. Kean ran ads describing Menendez as “under federal criminal investigation.” Menendez won the race, but he became an implacable enemy of Christie. It took him five years to secure a letter from the U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia, where the case had been transferred, clearing him of any wrongdoing.
In April 2015, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) again became the center of federal corruption investigation. He is accused of using the influence of his office to advance the business interests of a longtime friend and political supporter in exchange for luxury gifts, lavish vacations, prostitutes and more than $750,000 in campaign donations.
By the end of 2008, as Christie was preparing to run for governor, prosecutors began planning to simultaneously arrest all of their targets in the Dwek case. The lines between Christie’s political campaign and the work of the prosecutors often seemed blurry. With Barack Obama’s victory in November, Christie knew that he would soon be replaced by an Obama appointee. He resigned in December and, six weeks later, announced that he would challenge Corzine. During the campaign, Christie’s relationship with his colleagues in the U.S. Attorney’s office became a source of controversy. Michele Brown, one of the top lawyers in the office, was sending Christie five hundred dollars a month to repay a forty-six-thousand-dollar personal loan he had extended to her. Christie failed to report the payments on his state and federal ethics forms. In February, at a campaign event hosted by Bill Baroni, then a state senator, Christie noted that he had “a group of assistant U.S. Attorneys sitting down in Newark still doing their job. They are watching the newspapers. And, after we win this election, I’m going to take a whole group of them to Trenton with me and put them in every one of the departments.”
A 2008 photo of Chris Christie and acting first assistant U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Michele Brown. Jerry McCrea/The Star-Ledger.
In the early morning of July 23rd, three months before Election Day, Christie’s former colleagues arrested forty-four people, an odd mixture of New Jersey criminals connected by Dwek’s two-track sting: rabbis involved in money laundering and organ trafficking and local politicians ensnared in Dwek’s ruses. Among those targeted was Joseph Doria, a member of Corzine’s cabinet. F.B.I. agents raided his home, and though they didn’t arrest him, Corzine asked him to resign. It took Doria years to clear his name. “The night before the F.B.I. came to my house,” Doria, who now teaches at Rutgers, told me, “the individual who took the money said he never had given me the money and had told the F.B.I. he had kept all the money.” He added, “It wasn’t a pleasant time.”
Joseph Doria, a member of former Gov. Jon Corzine’s cabinet targeted in an F.B.I. corruption sting is currently an adjunct professor at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics.
New Jersey corruption, Christie’s top issue, dominated the gubernatorial race. Christie insisted that he had no prior knowledge of the timing of the arrests, though he happened to be campaigning in Hudson County the day they occurred, and he made himself available to the press. Corzine considered getting out of the race. On Election Day, DiVincenzo told me, he called Christie. “Chris, you ran a great campaign,” he told him. “I just want to wish you the best. I’m going to be there with you. You’re always going to be my friend.” DiVincenzo added, “I think he was happy that I called him to show respect.”
Later that evening, Corzine, who had long been suspicious of DiVincenzo’s loyalties, called him, asking for the margin of victory in Essex County: “What’s your number?” In 2005, Corzine had won the county by eighty-eight thousand votes. DiVincenzo said it was going to be seventy-five thousand this time. “That’s not good enough,” the Governor shouted. DiVincenzo, who told me that the campaign’s goal was only sixty-two thousand, threw his phone across the room in frustration. Christie beat Corzine by three and a half points. Corzine, who tried to make a campaign issue out of Christie’s politicization of his office, later said that he lost the race because of high unemployment.
Former Gov. Jon Corzine and then Gov.-elect Chris Christie attend an event in Newark in November 2007. Matt Rainey/The Star-Ledger
Other New Jersey Democrats are less charitable to Christie. Jerramiah Healy, the mayor of Jersey City, complained that the July arrests had affected the voter-turnout operation in Hudson County. “Jersey City had a good turnout for Corzine in his first win,” he told me. “That’s why this character Dwek was sicced on us.” (Christie’s spokesperson, Maria Comella, said this was “absolutely not true.”) In a new book, “Ruthless Ambition,” which also accuses Christie of politicizing his office, Louis Michael Manzo, a former assemblyman unsuccessfully targeted by Dwek, reveals that a copy of Dwek’s psychiatric evaluation, released during Dwek’s sentencing hearing, showed that he had “a history of serious mental disorder.” Michele Brown and several other former colleagues from the Newark office joined the new Christie administration. In 2010, the anonymous blogger from PolitickerNJ revealed that he was David Wildstein, a member of Christie’s high-school baseball team who later went to work for him at the Port Authority.
Former Jersey City Assemblyman Louis Michael Manzo.
The day after the election, DiVincenzo attended a Christie event in Newark. With Hudson County’s political machine damaged, DiVincenzo was now even more powerful. Christie walked over and said hello. “Thanks for the call, Joe,” the Governor-elect said. He shook DiVincenzo’s hand and gave him a hug. “Let’s see what we can do together.”
Only about a quarter of the state’s population lives in South Jersey, an area that generally includes everything below Trenton. But what the south lacks in population it compensates for in political power, personified by George Norcross III, New Jersey’s most influential Democratic political boss. “By gaining control of the legislature, he’s brought a lot of stuff to South Jersey,” Kean told me. “He’s able to make sure it gets more than its fair share of everything.” He added, “His influence is huge around the state, greater than any nonelected leader in my lifetime. And he’s made a fortune in the process.”
George Norcross III, left, and Chris Christie speaking at the ribbon cutting for Cooper’s medical school at Rowan University in 2012. – (Aaron Houston / NJBIZ)
The few Democrats who agreed to talk about Norcross attested to his power. “He’s No. 1 in the state without a doubt—I don’t think anybody disputes that,” Ray Lesniak, a longtime state senator from Elizabeth, in North Jersey, said. James Florio, a Democrat who served as the governor from 1990 to 1994, said, “He’s very smart, very smart.” Like Norcross, Florio is from Camden and has known him for decades as both an enemy and an ally. “I got along with him reasonably well. He can be a—” He paused. “Strong personality.” Early in Christie’s first term, Kean advised him that he had to have a good relationship with the top Democrats in the legislature, which meant cultivating their political bosses. “He got the most powerful governorship in the country,” Kean told me, “but he can’t get everything he wants without the support of Norcross.”
Camden, across the river from Philadelphia, is one of the most dangerous cities in the country. But at its center is a core of new development, anchored by Cooper University Hospital, which Norcross helped to build and where he is the chairman of the board. In early March, Christie broke ground on the latest Norcross project, the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, a charter school that will be built near the hospital. When Norcross introduced Christie at the ceremony, he teased the Governor openly. He reminded the audience that, despite Christie’s impressive reëlection, he failed to win any new Republican seats in the legislature. Then he touched on a sensitive issue. Norcross sponsors an annual ten-kilometre race across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, connecting Philadelphia and Camden. “There’s one thing the Governor, with all his power, has not been able to achieve,” he said. “I’m the one who’s able to shut down a bridge.”
George Norcross III to Chris Christie: “I’m the who’s able to shut down a bridge.”
Norcross had not warned Christie about the joke, and Christie looked surprised. As the audience laughed, Norcross went on to praise Christie for his “bold leadership.” He said, “In my lifetime there has never been a governor of either party who has worked harder and more diligently to help South Jersey, the city of Camden, and many of the things that we’re so proud of in this region.” Christie had no stinging retort. “Ol’ George is something, isn’t he?” he said. “Kicks me around, and then he says all those nice things to me right before I come up here. He’s the master.”
Afterward, I met Norcross for lunch in the cafeteria of the hospital, and then we took the elevator to the tenth floor, where he showed me the Camden skyline and outlined his plans for reviving the city. Norcross is fifty-eight, thin and compact, with a politician’s head of side-parted white hair and gleaming teeth. He told me that he couldn’t remember ever doing a taped interview with a reporter, and glared at my recording device.
In the late nineteen-seventies, the Democratic Party in Camden was divided between those loyal to Florio, then a young congressman, and those loyal to Angelo Errichetti, the mayor of Camden and a state senator. (Errichetti is the basis for the character of Carmine Polito, Camden’s corrupt mayor in “American Hustle.”) Norcross’s father had a poor relationship with Florio. “They had a bit of a falling out,” he said. “And, of course, if my father didn’t like somebody I didn’t like him, either, even though I didn’t know him. So we had this big political war, Errichetti against Florio.”
By 1981, the war in South Jersey was over: Florio became the Party’s gubernatorial candidate—he lost in the general election, to Kean, by fewer than two thousand votes—and controlled Camden’s Democratic organization. Errichetti was arrested in the Abscam scandal and served almost three years in prison. As Florio approached his next gubernatorial race, in 1989, he wanted to reform his Camden operation.
“Camden County government back in the late eighties had been the subject of a lot of ugly newspaper stories about high-level patronage, pinstripe patronage—a lot of bond houses, lawyers,” Norcross said, and added, “There’s probably some corruption involved.” In a surprise move, Florio put Norcross and Rob Andrews, a local Democratic freeholder, in charge of his machine. “He needed somebody to come in governmentally and clean it up and somebody to come in politically and clean it up,” Norcross said. “Rob Andrews became the freeholder-director of the board, and I became the political leader.”
Prior to becoming White House Chief of Staff or Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel investigated political opponents for George E. Norcross, III
Norcross brought in professional pollsters and hired opposition researchers to investigate political opponents. (His first researcher was a young Rahm Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago.) At thirty-two, Norcross emerged as a leading Democratic power broker. He became famous in New Jersey political circles when, in 1991, he executed a political-revenge plot against a politician who had crossed his family. In 1985, Governor Kean had appointed Norcross’s father to the New Jersey Racing Commission. “My father was a two-dollar bettor, loved the ponies,” Norcross said. Lee Laskin, the Republican state senator who represented the district where his father lived, in Camden County, blocked the appointment. Laskin, a conservative, was known in the legislature as Dr. No, because he voted against almost everything.
Norcross went to see him. “Senator, I come here as a son asking for a favor for his father,” Norcross said. “I don’t want my dad to know I ever came here to see you. This would mean the world to him. It would mean the world to me, and I would be forever indebted to you personally if you did this for my dad.”
“Senator, do you want to reconsider that? This is really important to me personally, and I really want you to do this for my dad.”
Six years later, Norcross persuaded John Adler, a Harvard-educated councilman from upscale Cherry Hill, to run against Laskin. Norcross took out a four-hundred-thousand-dollar personal loan, late in the campaign, so that Laskin wouldn’t see it on any campaign-finance reports, and created a TV ad accusing Laskin of mixing his law-office business with his official duties in the state senate. The barrage of negative ads on Philadelphia television destroyed him. Adler won, fifty-seven per cent to forty-three per cent. “We blew him away,” Norcross said. “It was the most exciting night I’ve ever had in politics in my life to this day.”
Former N.J. State Senator, John Adler, was the beneficiary of Norcross’ political revenge
Through the nineties, Norcross extended his political operation beyond Camden and solidified control over three other southern counties and several municipalities by recruiting and financing his own candidates. By 1999, he had a bloc of seats in the state assembly that owed allegiance to him. By 2007, he had a bloc of six seats in the senate. The Norcross bloc generally votes together on issues important to South Jersey, which is smaller and more homogeneous than the north. Because North Jersey bosses are often more divided, Norcross shifts his allegiances among leaders in Middlesex, Essex, Hudson, and Union Counties, or even to the Republican Party. “We have a unified political organization that knows that, in order to serve South Jersey, you must function in that manner,” Norcross said. “There are many times when we have strong differences of opinion on things, but we settle inside of a room, and we always come out unified.”
DiVincenzo told me that he envied Norcross’s power. “His people control the assembly, and they control the senators,” DiVincenzo said. “He controls their campaigns, he funds their campaigns. They don’t always all get along, but, when it comes down to a vote, they’ll all be together. I have two senators. He has seven senators, and he has about twelve assembly people.” He explained that Norcross’s power in the legislature made his own relationship with Christie all the more important. “I don’t have what George has. George has seven and twelve! I have two senators and five assembly people.”
Right after Christie’s election in 2009, Norcross and DiVincenzo worked out an arrangement: the south got to run the senate, and the north got to run the assembly. Stephen Sweeney, a childhood friend of Norcross’s, whom Norcross helped elect, in an upset victory, in 2001, became the president of the senate. Sheila Oliver, from East Orange, in Essex County, became the speaker of the assembly. “I called George, and that’s how we put it all together,” DiVincenzo said. “We got two votes for him, for Senator Sweeney. And he delivered our votes with our assembly people we had, and we were able to get the majority and she became the speaker.”
State Senator Stephen Sweeney became the president of the state senate based on a deal between Norcross and DiVincenzo.
Short of having a legislature controlled by Republicans, the Norcross-DiVincenzo deal was the best outcome for Christie. They were the two Democratic bosses in the state with whom he had the best relationships. Some observers were suspicious of the fact that, in 2005, as U.S. Attorney, Christie had declined to indict Norcross, who was under investigation after a South Jersey town councilman told the police that he was being coerced and possibly bribed by Democrats to fire a municipal employee. The councilman, wearing a wire, recorded hours of conversations with South Jersey political figures. Norcross is heard on the tapes conducting the sometimes unpleasant business of running a small political fiefdom. “Don’t fuck with me on this one,” he says at one point. “I catch you one more time doing it, you’re going to get your fucking balls cut off.” But his most telling statement was a boast: “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.”
In January, 2006, in a six-page letter to the state attorney general that became public, Christie said that he wouldn’t indict Norcross because the investigation had been mishandled. For years, Democrats have accused Christie of dropping the case in order to turn Norcross into a political ally. Norcross, who has never discussed the case in depth, insisted that Christie would have indicted him if he had the evidence. “Christie, as I’ve come to know him now, is somebody who if he has a head shot he will take it,” Norcross told me. “If I had done something illegal, he would’ve indicted me. No doubt about it in my mind.” He said he wished that Christie had fully cleared his name. “I was very disappointed that he did not pronounce my innocence,” he said. “There are those who have speculated that that would’ve placed him in a position he didn’t want to be. People would’ve said, ‘Oh, you did a favor for the guy.’ ”
Norcross and his bloc of South Jersey legislators helped Governor Christie secure the major legislative achievements of his first term, including a bill to curb the costs of pension and health-care benefits for unionized teachers and government workers, whom Christie often attacked in his first term. “In the past, when we had difficult times, people would look for scapegoats—Jews, Catholics, Irish—and Christie provided public workers, teachers, and the civil-service system,” Florio told me. “From a policy perspective, he was very commendable in being clear. Now, I might be inclined to say it’s overly simple in the clarity, but, at times such as that, that’s what people are looking for.”
The fight against public employees made Christie a national celebrity among conservatives outside the state, and fuelled talk of him as a future Presidential candidate. That reputation was solidified when, in October, 2010, Christie cancelled a new multibillion-dollar train tunnel—the Access to the Region’s Core project—between New Jersey and midtown Manhattan, partly financed by the Port Authority. It seemed to be one of the most politically deft moves of Christie’s first term. Christie used the savings from the cancelled project to fund New Jersey’s transportation trust fund, which helped him keep a campaign commitment not to raise gasoline taxes. “He injected fifty to sixty political patronage jobs, as well as strategic political people, into Port Authority, with the view that he can use this entity to drive capital projects for New Jersey and satisfy campaign promises,” a top official at the Port Authority told me. Conservatives cheered the move, but Democrats saw it as a sign that Christie was using the Port Authority as a political tool. John Wisniewski, the head of the transportation committee in the assembly, passed a resolution granting his committee subpoena power, a rarity in the New Jersey legislature, and opened an investigation.
Christie’s popularity began to dip in 2012, and leading New Jersey Democrats, including Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Stephen Sweeney, the senate president, began preparing gubernatorial campaigns. Christie’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, in October, caused his approval rating to soar into the seventies, and both Booker and Sweeney decided not to challenge him. “God was not going to defeat him,” Norcross told me. With those two Democrats out of the race, DiVincenzo enthusiastically endorsed Christie’s reëlection, against State Senator Barbara Buono. Other Democrats were shocked. “You can’t be coerced into supporting the candidate on your ticket all the time,” Bill Pascrell, a congressman from Paterson*, said. “But there is an unwritten rule: then keep your mouth shut if you can’t.”
DiVincenzo said that Christie’s priority was to win over Democrats so he could launch a Presidential campaign based on his bipartisan record in New Jersey. “That’s why he wanted my support,” DiVincenzo said. “My relationship with the Hispanic community and the black community. It wasn’t about winning New Jersey with Joe D.—it was about a national story.” On January 24, 2013, Christie’s top political advisers compiled a private list of twenty-one Democratic mayors whose endorsement they coveted. Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, was the second name on the list. “We should get the targets to ‘sign on dotted line,’ ” a top aide wrote in an e-mail.
Jersey City’s new Democratic mayor, Steven Fulop, who is thirty-seven and a former marine, quickly learned what could happen to Democrats who didn’t coöperate. After Fulop was elected, in May, 2013, Christie showered him with attention. Top Christie officials were scheduled to meet individually with Fulop on July 18th. “They were going to roll out the red carpet,” Fulop told me. He considered endorsing Christie, but decided not to, partly because he realized that, if he ran for governor in 2017, the endorsement could be used against him in a Democratic primary. Bill Baroni, Wildstein’s boss, and Christie’s top appointee at the Port Authority, called and cancelled his meeting with Fulop. Baroni gave no explanation and made no offer to reschedule it. Michele Brown and three other Christie officials made similar calls within twenty-four hours. “Yes, it’s political retribution,” Fulop told me. “And it’s amateur and immature. But if I saw any indication that they were penalizing the city on something, that would’ve been a different animal.” He added, “It’s a dick move, but it is what it is.”
Christie rarely campaigned for Republican legislative candidates, especially in the south. “He left those areas alone,” Philip Alagia, DiVincenzo’s chief of staff, said. “He was with Sweeney more in photographs than he was with any Republican senate candidate in the state.” On September 12th, as the lane closings in Fort Lee entered their fourth day, Christie unveiled his first general-election television ad of the campaign, which emphasized his bipartisan record. “They said it couldn’t be done. New Jersey was too broken, too partisan,” the ad said. “They never met Chris Christie. Working with both parties, he made tough decisions.”
Norcross didn’t endorse Christie, but there seemed to be an informal non-compete agreement between his organization and the Governor: Christie mostly stayed away from Norcross’s candidates, and Norcross mostly stayed out of the gubernatorial race. Norcross, who appeared with Christie at a major event in Camden on October 7th, a month before Election Day, insisted that there was no formal agreement. Christie said later, “I had no deal with George Norcross on politics.” But DiVincenzo told me there was obviously a détente. “There’s no question there must have been deals that were done,” he said. Kean said, “The Governor wouldn’t campaign in certain districts, and I know he wouldn’t raise money in certain districts in South Jersey.”
Despite Christie’s sixty-per-cent victory, the legislature remained under Democratic control. The Democrats from the south retained the senate presidency under Sweeney, and the Democrats from the north retained the speakership of the assembly. But Norcross, along with others, pressed northern Democrats to remove Oliver as speaker and put Vincent Prieto, from Secaucus, in the position. Christie also wanted to make a change. Tom Kean, Jr., was the senate minority leader. Unlike Christie, Kean, who will likely run for governor in 2017, worked hard to try to win legislative seats for Republicans, especially in seven southern districts, where Norcross and Sweeney control eighteen out of twenty-one seats. Kean even ran a strong Republican candidate against Sweeney. “It was a nasty thing between Sweeney and Kean,” DiVincenzo said.
With Sweeney’s support, Christie attempted to engineer a coup against Kean for the minority leadership. Thomas Kean, Sr., told me, “The day after the election, a friend of mine called me and said, ‘You know there’s a guy calling around saying he’s got the Governor’s support running against your son.’ And I said, ‘That doesn’t make any sense, because I was with the Governor last night, and he didn’t say anything.’ ” Kean, Jr., asked his Republican colleagues to sign a pledge of support. Kean, Sr., called “one of the Governor’s top people,” who told him that Christie had nothing to do with the plot.
On Wednesday, the night before the crucial vote to elect leaders for the new session, Christie’s chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, who had been a prosecutor under Christie in the U.S. Attorney’s office, asked Kean, Jr., to come to the Governor’s office the following morning. There he told him that Christie wanted him to step aside. “I don’t think I’m willing to step aside,” Kean replied. O’Dowd disappeared to talk to Christie. When he returned, he told Kean that the Governor didn’t want to see him. Kean, Sr., didn’t expect his son to prevail. “I know how tough Chris is on people, and if you cross him he never forgets,” he said. “I didn’t think people were going to have the courage to take on the Governor after his reëlection.” Nevertheless, Kean retained his role as senate minority leader. Sitting in his leadership office in the basement of the Capitol, in Trenton, he smiled as we discussed his victory over Christie, at that time the most popular politician in America. “I won the vote,” he said.
In November 2014, Christie’s Chief of Staff stepped down to accept an executive position with -Cooper University Hospital. George E. Norcross, III, is the Chairman of Cooper Hospital.
In Trenton, Christie’s failed coup attempt played as a sign of his imperfections, which the bridge scandal, already percolating, revealed more fully. “It was a mistake,” DiVincenzo said. A Democrat familiar with the episode said, “Christie thought he could snap his fingers and tell the senate what to do. It was the single most devastating thing he did in his governorship.”
Tom Kean, Sr., felt betrayed by Christie’s move against his son. “I thought at some point the Governor would call me and say, ‘Hey, you gotta understand this, I had to do this for this reason or that reason.’ Whatever. But he never called me. The last time I talked to him was Election Night.”
The bridge scandal might never have been revealed if not for the sleuthing of Loretta Weinberg, a seventy-nine-year-old self-described nosy Jewish grandmother who is also a Democratic state senator from Teaneck, New Jersey, just northwest of Fort Lee. “I bungled into the Port Authority issue, just out of my curiosity,” she told me.
In September, Weinberg read an item in the Bergen Record about the traffic jam. A commuter told the paper, “Other than after the 9/11 attacks, I’ve never seen such a fiasco of delays at the inbound, upper-level part of the bridge.” A senior official at the Port Authority promised Weinberg that he would “get to the bottom of it,” but when she didn’t hear back she became suspicious. “My training comes from having raised children through their adolescent years,” she told me. “ ‘What do you mean you didn’t have a party? You weren’t even smart enough to put the beer cans in someone else’s back yard.’ That’s my investigatory background.”
New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, special investigative committee co-chairs, are leading the panel of bipartisan politicians probing Bridgegate. Photo by Jennifer Brown/New York Daily News
Weinberg was elected to the state assembly in 1992 and to the state senate in 2005. In 2009, after the Dwek bust, when Corzine needed to prove his own anti-corruption bona fides, he chose Weinberg as his running mate. During Christie’s first term, she had several high-profile fights with him. The most famous incident came in 2011, after she criticized the Governor for defending DiVincenzo, who, through a quirk in state law, was drawing a pension for a job he still held. Weinberg, who was seventy-six years old and had lost her retirement savings to Bernie Madoff’s scam, was also drawing a public pension while still in office. Christie told reporters, “Can you guys please take the bat out on her for once?” On Weinberg’s desk, when I visited her recently, was a letter to the Governor that her seven-year-old granddaughter had written. “This is Loretaz grand datr,” it said. “I want you to ¡Stop ¡Bulieg Eevripati! Cris Cristi.” I asked if Christie ever apologized to her. “What, are you kidding me?” Weinberg said.
Throughout the fall, as Christie moved toward reëlection, Weinberg began attending the Port Authority’s public meetings. On October 2nd, the day after an article about the incident appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Baroni texted Wildstein that Maria Comella, Christie’s spokesperson, “didn’t think much of the story. Said nobody paying attention.” But other Christie aides were alarmed by Weinberg’s persistence and nervously monitored her actions. On October 16th, after a Port Authority meeting that Weinberg attended, Regina Egea, a top Christie aide, e-mailed three other senior staffers. “Sen Weinberg attended bd meeting but did not speak,” she wrote, adding, “Questions ensued on ft lee but holding to script of ‘all under review.’ She held post interview in hallway.”
Weinberg took Wisniewski, the transportation-committee chair, to one of the Port Authority meetings, and he soon joined the ranks of the bridge conspiracy theorists. Wisniewski, a tall, ambitious fifty-one-year-old lawyer, is from Sayreville, a suburb in Middlesex County. Like Weinberg, he had often opposed the Democratic leadership’s strategy of coöperating with Christie, and pursued numerous investigations of his administration, including the inquiry into why Christie cancelled the tunnel project in 2010. Although Wisniewski had the power to subpoena documents, the probes didn’t go anywhere.
State Sen. Dick Codey (a former acting governor of New Jersey) suggested on MSNBC yesterday that unnamed unelected Democratic powerbrokers with whom Chris Christie is close were involved in trying to cover up the governor’s “BridgeGate” scandal.
Weinberg’s interest in the bridge scandal grew, she tried to persuade the senate, controlled by Sweeney, to give her subpoena authority, but he wasn’t interested. Some Democrats warned that the Party bosses were trying to protect Christie. Weinberg turned to Wisniewski, who had three months left before his subpoena power expired. Wisniewski asked Baroni to appear before his committee on November 25th to explain the lane closures. In the days before, Baroni worked with Christie’s senior aides to edit remarks he had prepared. Egea homed in on a picture with a bird’s-eye view of the bridge’s toll plaza that Baroni wanted to use. “Is there a picture from rush hour showing congestion?” she wrote in the margin. “Ideally w/little back up @ F.L. and more at other tolls?” Six days later, testifying before the committee, Baroni defended the closures as part of an important traffic study to determine whether Fort Lee had more than its fair share of access lanes. He came prepared with statistics on how many New Jerseyans from the committee members’ districts were potentially inconvenienced. “Every one of you on this committee has people in your communities who sit in longer traffic every day because of the special lanes for Fort Lee,” he said. He bombastically interrupted the committee members’ questions and changed the subject to the issue of political favoritism for Fort Lee. “Forty-two of your neighbors in Sayreville, they’re waiting in longer lines,” he lectured Wisniewski. “Maybe that’s O.K. When I was in the senate, I wouldn’t have gone back to my constituents and said that was fair.”
Wisniewski applauded the show. “Bravo to the theatre and to the turning of the tables,” he said to Baroni. “You’d always been good at that while you were a senator. You are a masterful dancer.” When the performance was over, Kevin O’Toole, a Republican state senator who is close to Christie, released a statement. “Why was a sweetheart deal done that gave Fort Lee three lanes and a dedicated exit?” he asked. The Governor’s office, where top aides listened to Baroni’s testimony live-streamed to their computers, also sent word of its approval. Charles McKenna, Christie’s chief counsel, and one of the former prosecutors Christie brought with him from the U.S. Attorney’s office, was apparently pleased. Wildstein texted Baroni, “Charlie said you did GREAT.”
But Weinberg and Wisniewski suspected that Baroni was lying. “I was willing to reserve judgment about what was happening until about ten minutes into Bill Baroni’s testimony,” Wisniewski told me. “It was so over the top and combative.” Wisniewski subpoenaed Wildstein, Baroni, and other Port Authority officials, and he brought Patrick Foye, the executive director of the agency, before his committee. Foye was an appointee of Governor Andrew Cuomo, of New York, and in September, when he learned what Wildstein and Baroni had done, he stopped their scheme and reopened the Fort Lee lanes. On December 9th, he was asked by Wisniewski’s committee about Baroni’s alleged traffic study. Christie listened to Foye while eating lunch. “I’m not aware of any traffic study,” Foye said.
Bill Baroni was indicted in April 2015 on conspiracy charges related to the September 2013 George Washington Bridge lane closures. (Tony Kurdzuk | The Star-Ledger)
The traffic study turned out to be an elaborate cover story. “This guy just made this up,” Weinberg said. “They tried to make this into something that everybody else would get mad at.” She added, “The coverup wasn’t even good.”
In December, as the Christie administration’s story unravelled, the Governor publicly dismissed Weinberg and Wisniewski as being “obsessed” with the issue. “It just shows you they really have nothing to do,” he said on December 2nd. But privately Christie feared that the scandal was getting too close to him. On December 5th, Michael Drewniak, his press secretary, told Christie that he had had dinner with Wildstein the previous evening. He said Wildstein had said that, on September 11th, the third day of the traffic jam, he had told Christie about the traffic issue when the two men were together at a 9/11 anniversary event. Christie told Drewniak that Wildstein and Baroni “had to go,” and the following day he forced them to resign. Christie personally edited a press statement about Wildstein’s resignation, adding language to “thank him for his service to the people of New Jersey and the region.” It still seemed as if it might all go away. “You are a great friend and this too shall pass,” Drewniak texted Wildstein on December 8th.
Incoming NJ Assembly speaker, Vincent Prieto, threatened to shut down the subpoena power of panel in GWB scandal
Despite the gathering momentum of the scandal, Vincent Prieto, the new Democratic speaker of the assembly, showed little interest in renewing Wisniewski’s subpoena authority. “We have a new speaker who wants to earn his credentials,” a Democratic legislator told me. “There was a long time there when we weren’t sure they were going to renew subpoena power.” Wisniewski knew that unless he found something explosive his investigation would be over.
In the late afternoon of December 23rd, the servers at the Office of Legislative Services, in Trenton, became overloaded as a cache of e-mails with enormous PDFs arrived. Wisniewski learned that thousands of pages of subpoenaed documents from Wildstein and Baroni had arrived. On December 26th, after Wisniewski’s family had gone to bed, he retreated to his home office and trudged through the unwieldy PDFs. He had been fruitlessly investigating Christie’s politicization of the Port Authority for four years, and he assumed there would be little of value in the new documents. “My expectation was, I’m going to go through these and there’s going to be a lot of stuff in here that’s just totally pointless,” he said. It was getting late, and he was close to giving up for the night.
Then an e-mail—one that could possibly ruin Christie’s political career—appeared on his screen. At first, Wisniewski said, he thought, “I’m not seeing this right. It just doesn’t make sense.” He started Googling the names. The e-mail was from Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, to Wildstein. The time stamp said it was sent at 7:34 A.M., on August 13, 2013.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she wrote.
“Got it,” Wildstein replied.
In April 2015, Former Port Authority executive David Wildstein, pled guilty to conspiracy, alleging he had conspired with former Port Authority Deputy Executive Director William Baroni and Gov. Chris Christie’s former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly to “punish” Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie’s re-election bid. Kelly denies the allegations.
Christie has responded to the scandal by distancing himself from the aides who knew about the lane closures and by arguing that the incident was an aberration. After Wisniewski uncovered the evidence that the bridge plot started in Christie’s office—with someone he has described as “one of my closest aides”—Christie fired Kelly and cut ties to Bill Stepien, his campaign manager and a senior political adviser, who also seemed to know about the plot. He hired lawyers to investigate and write a report about the incident, and they pinned the blame on Kelly and Wildstein. Some of Christie’s aides regard Wildstein with particular venom, choosing to believe that he ran a rogue operation and then foisted a fake cover story on the Governor. “I could claw his eyes out, pour gasoline in the sockets and light him up,” Drewniak wrote to an unidentified recipient on January 14th. “He became deluded in his belief that he had constructed a legit traffic study.”
One problem with this theory is that Wildstein’s antics were common knowledge before the bridge scandal. “Wildstein was known by us, and we communicated to New Jersey all the time that he was a cancer,” the top Port Authority official said. “So this wasn’t a surprise that he did something bad. It was just a surprise about how bad and how manipulative it was.” He added, “There was a culture that created some of this stuff in the whole Christie world. He was running for reëlection, and he wanted the Christie-crats, to get as many endorsements as he could. There was that list of names, and the culture was to get it done.”
The greatest danger to Christie’s political future comes from Paul Fishman, his successor as U.S. Attorney, who is conducting a criminal investigation into the Fort Lee lane closures. The circle of people who could potentially coöperate with Fishman and offer damaging information about Christie keeps expanding. First, Wildstein, Baroni, Kelly, and Stepien were pushed out of Christie’s orbit. Then, after Christie’s report was released, David Samson, Christie’s close ally and the chairman of the Port Authority, resigned.
Christie’s successor as U.S. Attorney, Paul Fishman, was responsible for handing down the indictments in Operation Bid Rig III.
If Christie escapes Fishman’s inquiry, as well as Weinberg and Wisniewski’s, he still must overcome the damage to his reputation. Thomas Kean, Sr., said he believed Christie when he said that he knew nothing about it. “Now, there’s another question, about whether he created an atmosphere in which some of those people thought they were doing his will because they were getting back at people,” he said. “That’s possible.” He added, “If you cross Christie, he’ll come back at you, even years later. So his people might have picked up that kind of thing.”
“What if he did know?” I asked.
“And he’s just telling a lie to everybody?” Kean said. “Well, then he’s finished. As governor, too.” ♦
*An earlier version of this article misspelled Paterson.
(*Embedded photos and captions not part of original article)
Read the original article at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/04/14/crossing-christie