In Super Bowl 2014 spotlight, Chris Christie muddles through bridge scandal falloutJames Cohen in The Star-Ledger, February 02, 2014
The boos began the moment Gov. Chris Christie stepped to the microphone. They didn’t let up until he walked away.
At a Times Square Super Bowl event attended by thousands of NFL fans, tourists and spectators Saturday afternoon, the rude greeting might have been a first for Christie, showing how far New Jersey’s brightest political star has fallen.
Christie spoke for less than a minute at the ceremony, a symbolic "handing off" of Super Bowl hosting duties from New York and New Jersey to Arizona, where the game will be held next year. The boos persisted through his brief speech. No other politician or celebrity received the same treatment.
Before the George Washington Bridge lane-closure fiasco, before the mayor of Hoboken went public with allegations of political blackmail and before Christie came under scrutiny for the way he has doled out Hurricane Sandy recovery funds, the buildup to today’s game could have been a national showcase for the governor, a popular Republican with White House ambitions.
Instead, Christie can add New Jersey’s first Super Bowl to the list of shining media moments soured by scandal.
"This was going to be a tremendous victory lap for the governor, but the events of the past month have certainly undermined all those plans," said Ben Dworkin, a political science professor at Rider University.
In recent days, a handful of Democratic lawmakers have raised the specter of impeachment, and members of both parties have called on Christie to relinquish his chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association, a plum platform for any politician with loftier aspirations.
The bad news has played out on national television and in print and electronic media well beyond the United States. And it won’t end anytime soon.
On Monday morning in Trenton, a joint legislative panel investigating any abuse of power in the Christie administration is due to receive the first batch of documents demanded by subpoenas served on 18 people, including Christie’s chief of staff, his chief counsel, his press secretary, a close political adviser and officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
State Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), who co-chairs the committee with state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), said Saturday that the delivery of documents is likely to be a drawn-out process because nearly all of those targeted have asked for extensions.
"We have instructed counsel to make reasonable accommodations where appropriate," he said. "Some want a few extra days. Some want to deliver them on a rolling basis."
Once in hand, the documents will be cataloged by the Office of Legislative Services and checked for completeness, Weinberg said. They are not expected to be made public until the people who supplied the records testify before the committee.
The committee’s special counsel, former federal prosecutor Reid Schar, said in a statement Saturday that he met with the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Friday to ensure the panel’s work would not interfere with the federal probe.
"Based on the meeting, I am comfortable that the committee’s investigation may continue," Schar said. "As we proceed, we will be mindful of the need to avoid taking steps that could inappropriately impede any investigation the U.S. Attorney’s Office may be conducting."
One aim of the panel is to determine how and why Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, conspired with the governor’s allies at the Port Authority to restrict access to the bridge from Fort Lee in September.
The broader objective for investigators is to find out if other members of the administration were involved. Wisniewski said Kelly has clearly been implicated with her email, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," but the assemblyman questioned whether she had authorization from a superior.
"We need to figure out why she thought she could send those orders out," Wisniewski said. "Clearly it’s the middle of the conversation."
Christie has unequivocally denied playing any role, and no one has provided evidence suggesting he did.
But the governor’s integrity has come under fire by David Wildstein, the former Port Authority official who set the lane closures in motion after receiving Kelly’s email.
In a letter released Friday, an attorney for Wildstein suggested Christie lied when he said during a Jan. 9 press conference that he didn’t know about the lane closures while they were taking place.
Christie has said he learned about the restrictions after they were lifted on Sept. 13.
The attorney, Alan Zegas, said "evidence exists … tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures" while they were underway.
The allegation, offered without supporting documentation, continues to reverberate in Trenton and in legal circles.
The governor’s office fired back at Wildstein Saturday afternoon, distributing an email that noted his "tumultuous tenure" as mayor of Livingston, his previous job as an anonymous blogger for a political website and the fact that he filed suit over a local school board election when he was 16.
"Bottom line — David Wildstein will do and say anything to save David Wildstein," the email, obtained by Politico, said.
The language contrasts sharply with a statement released by the administration when Wildstein resigned from the Port Authority in December as questions about the lane closures gained traction. That statement referred to him as a "tireless advocate" and thanked him his "dedication."
Wisniewski said the investigative panel wants to know more about Wildstein’s claim about Christie, though he said it would not have a major impact on how the panel goes about its work.
"We have made it pretty clear we have a trail to follow," he said.
Speaking on MSNBC Saturday, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th Dist.) said that if Wildstein’s claim is accurate, that if Christie lied about anything, "I don’t think he stays in office."
"If the governor is lying publicly like that, how can he stay in office?" Pallone asked.
Prominent New Jersey attorneys questioned the timing and intent of Wildstein’s allegation about Christie, saying it appeared to be a naked plea for immunity from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The agency is investigating both the lane closures and subsequent claims by the mayor of Hoboken that the administration threatened to cut off Hurricane Sandy aid if she didn’t help shepherd a development project to approval.
The question is whether Wildstein’s move on Friday will lead to a stampede to the U.S. Attorney’s Office by other potential targets.
"What Wildstein did could potentially cause a run on the bank by people attempting to obtain immunity or cooperate," said Joseph Hayden, a former state prosecutor and founder of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey.
It has yet to be determined whether a federal crime took place with the lane closures, Hayden said. If U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman finds a violation has been committed, he likely won’t be in a rush to immunize anyone.
Wildstein’s credibility, Hayden said, "will rise or fall on whether or not there is any objective corroboration beyond his word."
The quest for immunity is a delicate dance, other attorneys said, perhaps explaining why Zegas, Wildstein’s lawyer, provided no evidence to back up his claims Christie knows more than he has let on.
If Zegas "gives away the whole thing," prosecutors might not need to make an immunity deal," said James Cohen, a professor at Fordham University Law School.
Whether Wildstein is granted immunity or not, by making the first move, he’s likely sent chills down the spines of anyone involved in the lane closures.
"The chances are better than even that the other people are meeting now with their lawyers, saying, ‘Well, wait a minute, should I do the same thing that Wildstein did?" Cohen said. "They’re worried about Wildstein — and I think properly so — pointing the finger at them.
"So Wildstein is not going to just point the finger at the governor, he’s going to point the finger at the governor’s associates," Cohen said. "And if I’m one of those associates, I’m going to want to be knocking on the prosecutor’s door sooner rather than later to see what kind of deal I can get."
The intrigues will play out over months, most certainly uncomfortably for Christie, even as he seeks to implement his agenda.
"We still have the people’s work to do," Weinberg said. "The governor’s office will have to continue governing."
Today, Christie will attend the Super Bowl, watching from a luxury box borrowed by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. For three or four hours, he can focus on the game.
On Monday, it’s back to reality.