Christie's Bridge Scandal Lawyers Seek Documents from Hoboken, Fort LeeJames Cohen in The Star-Ledger, February 11, 2014
TRENTON — Lawyers working for Gov. Chris Christie’s office have widened their inquiry into twin scandals dogging the Republican, sending records request for everything from a personal journal to internal emails to documents leaked to newspaper reporters.
The team of attorneys, led by former federal prosecutor Randy Mastro, is searching for potential evidence as they represent Christie’s office amid accusations over the closure of lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge and claims his administration tried to strong-arm the Hoboken mayor into approving a development project.
In Hoboken, where officials last week received a series of letters from the lawyers requesting interviews and documents, one council member yesterday objected to the law firm’s tactics.
Last week, the attorneys filed a records request seeking a copy of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s personal journal, which she used to document her allegation that the Christie administration threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy aid if she did not support the real estate project.
The request, obtained by The Star-Ledger and NJ.com, was filed last Tuesday, the same day Mastro sent the letters to Zimmer and other city officials asking for interviews and copies of various documents related to her accusations. Those letters were first obtained by The Record.
Yesterday, Mastro filed a public records request with Fort Lee, where the bridge access lanes were closed in September in what Democrats contend was an act of political retaliation. The request, which targets Mayor Mark Sokolich and his staff, seeks documents — including emails and other correspondence — related to the lane closures.
Mastro also requested documents provided to newspaper reporters in recent months by both municipalities.
The letters and requests are a sign of a broadening inquiry by Mastro and his team at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. The firm is being paid $650 an hour to represent the governor’s office, which has billed the work as an internal investigation meant to determine who on Christie’s staff was involved in the lane closures, as well as to ensure the office cooperates with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and its investigation.
"The Governor’s Office takes the allegations recently made by Hoboken Mayor Zimmer very seriously," Mastro wrote to Gerald Krovatin, an attorney for Zimmer. "For that reason, we have assembled a team here that includes five former federal prosecutors and are conducting a thorough review of the facts pertinent to Mayor Zimmer’s allegations."
Krovatin and the city’s corporation counsel turned down the requests from Mastro, who also sought interviews and documents from two city councilmen and two of the mayor’s top aides. Krovatin also questioned whether it was appropriate for Mastro to be looking into the allegations about Sandy aid, noting federal prosecutors are also conducting a review of those claims.
"We question whether it is appropriate for the Governor’s Office, in essence, to be investigating itself …" Krovatin wrote in a response.
Yesterday, Hoboken Councilman David Mello, who received one of the letters, said he was surprised by the request. He and three others received letters that said Mastro had read news reports indicating they had given interviews to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
"I didn’t appreciate receiving a letter from a law firm that’s been hired by the state administration asking me for an interview," Mello said. "It seemed highly inappropriate."
The others who received letters — Councilman Ravi Bhalla, Chief of Staff Dan Bryan and Communications Director Juan Melli — declined to comment yesterday.
Mastro declined to answer questions yesterday about his inquiries but provided a brief statement.
"I will not comment on our internal review while it is being conducted, other than to say that we are, of course, reaching out to request interviews of those who have made these allegations and others who may have information relevant to them," he said. "And we are communicating with investigators, consistent with our mandate to facilitate cooperation with those authorities."
One legal expert, Aidan O’Connor, a lawyer and a former federal prosecutor, said there doesn’t appear to be anything improper about Mastro’s letters to Hoboken officials. "I think they’d be remiss in not trying to get as many facts as they could," he said.
James Cohen, a law professor at Fordham University, said the letters appear to show the law firm is acting as defense attorney and not an independent fact finder. Given that Zimmer claims Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno said she was delivering a "direct message" from Christie when she allegedly told her to approve a real estate project or risk Hurricane Sandy aid for her city, Mastro’s inquiry raises ethical questions, Cohen said.
"The letters strike me as a fairly heavy-handed attempt to intimidate — and cleverly done," Cohen said. "I don’t mean to take away from that. I’m always impressed when lawyers do clever things."