New Jersey Governor and potential Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie has got a serious and still building scandal on his hands. It has certainly progressed to the state at which it has earned the “-gate” suffix, although it is just getting started. It is not clear to me, however, whether this is Bridgegate or Bridgetgate. But that is the least of my questions.
When the news broke—early Wednesday morning, January 8, 2014—that emails from Governor Chris Christie’s top staff had surfaced indicating that they had knowingly used their power for political reasons—specifically, to close two toll booth lanes onto the George Washington Bridge (which connects NJ to NYC) as an act of political retribution, my first reaction was to tweet it as “Bridgegate.”
But now, based on the Thursday, January 9, 2014, press conference held by Governor Christie, I am not sure that is the best name for the scandal. At his extended press conference to address this fast-breaking scandal, the governor announced that he had fired his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Ann Kelly, placing her at the core of the scandal. Thus, I wonder is this really Bridgetgate? Possibly. But I think not. Has Governor Christie tossed his former top aide under the bus as a means of protecting himself, since her purportedly lying to him is the reason that he claims he had no knowledge? Is Bridget Kelly actually the scapegoat in this scandal?
Bridget Ann Kelly’s Role In The Toll Booth Closings
Based on the new emails and other available records, we now broadly know what happened. On August 13, 2013, Governor Christie’s deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly had an e-mail exchange with David Wildstein, the governor’s appointee to the NY/NJ Port Authority, which operates the George Washington Bridge, saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein responded, “Got it.” Then, on September 6, 2013, Wildstein, using his power as the Port Authority’s Director of Interstate Capital Projects, ordered the bridge’s general manager to close tollbooths that normally feed local traffic from Fort Lee, New Jersey onto the bridge.
We don’t know what happened before August 13, 2013 on this matter, so there is much to be filled in on the earlier timeline. We do know, however, what happened as a result of this brief exchange.
On September 9, 2013, traffic from Fort Lee heading for New York City via the bridge came to a standstill. The usually easy drive across the Hudson River stopped moving. With no advance warning, two lanes of tollbooths had been closed, backing traffic into the town of Fort Lee itself, where the streets became gridlocked. The closures continued unexplained for four days.
The problems went far beyond commuters’ being late to work. Rather, since it had been the first day of school, buses filled with kids were late for school. The head of Fort Lee’s emergency services wrote to Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, on September 10, 2013, explaining that the toll booth closings had life-and-death consequences. The closings were causing “unnecessary delays for emergency services to arrive on scene for medical emergencies,” with the emergency services head citing several examples, including car wrecks, chest pains that could not be treated, and a 91-year-old’s suffering a heart attack.
Almost immediately, rumors circulated that the toll booths had been closed by Christie’s Port Authority appointees because Fort Lee’s Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich had refused to endorse Christie’s reelection bid, which he wanted to be a landslide in order to show as a Republican (and a presidential bid hopeful) that he could win big in a Democratic state like New Jersey. Christie won his re-election big, and when asked if the bridge lane closures were ordered for political retribution, Christie said “absolutely, unequivocally not.”
When the emails (nicely highlighted by Think Progress) surfaced, they put the lie to Christie’s unequivocal denial. Clearly, they showed that the tollbooth closures were carefully orchestrated to cause the problems that had occurred, and occurred because of the efforts of Christie cronies Bridget Kelly and David Wildstein. The emails revived what had become a simmering scandal, injecting it with steroids and placing it on stilts.
On January 9, 2014, an “embarrassed and humiliated” Governor Christie insisted at his press conference that he had been deceived by Bridget Kelly, when she earlier had denied knowledge about the bridge tollbooth closings. Christie announced on national television that he had fired her for lying to him. He protested that he personally had had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or implementation of the tollbooth closing. He said that he had been totally blind-sided by the release of the emails on January 8th. He added that, even now, he does not know why the closings occurred. In responding to questions during his almost two-hour-long press conference, Christie said that, in firing Bridget Kelly, he had not talked to her; and he had not asked her about what she had done or why she had done it. Rather, she was fired simply because she had earlier denied having any role at all, which the emails showed was untrue.
In short, on January 9, 2014, Governor Chris Christie staked his political future on his claim that he had no knowledge, involvement, nor direct liability for the mean-spirited abuses of government power that were employed to impose traffic havoc on the people of Fort Lee, New Jersey. The subtext of Christie’s contention is that Mr. Tough-But-Nice-Guy, the once-feared federal prosecutor, has been deceived, if not made a fool of, by a youngish, sweet-faced, single mother of four who worked for him. IF, and it’s a big if, Christie is being truthful, then he will survive and could very well be the GOP’s 2016 standard-bearer. Indeed, this episode could actually help him with Republicans. If it is discovered that Christie has told even the smallest lie regard this matter, however, then he is toast, or maybe a loaf is a better metaphor, and his political career is over.
So the bottom-line question is this one: Has Bridget Kelly fallen on her sword, and become a volunteer scapegoat, or did she foolishly and stupidly engage in this misconduct and then lie to the Governor about it?
Is Bridget Kelly Falling On Her Sword?
Bridget Kelly, now forty-one years old, has worked on Governor Christie’s personal staff since 2013, and has been with the Christie administration since 2010. According to press reports, she was fired from a job with $140,000 annual salary.
The fact that Governor Christie says that he chose not speak with her about what she had done, or why she has done it, raises some very basic questions. Merely because Christie said he did not speak with her personally does not mean he has not had open communications with her through others on his staff. (No reporter asked that question, unfortunately.)
Frankly, I find it odd the way Christie fired Ms. Kelly. As I listened to the governor’s explanations, I found more questions than answers: (1) My most pressing question is this: Is Ms. Kelly falling on her sword and taking the heat on this matter? ; (2) A second concern of mine relates to Christie’s failure to explain why he did not talk to Ms. Kelly personally, which seemed strange. Did he did not want to hear what she had to say? If not, why not? (3) Was this an isolated incident for Ms. Kelly, or a pattern and practice, a standard procedure for political payback sent from the governor’s office? (4) How could this happen in Christie’s office if he was even half as pure as he was claiming, regarding his outrage over such dirty dealing?
Anyone with any knowledge of politics understands that nefarious scheming by the staff NEVER takes place in a vacuum. Rather, staffers take their cues from others, and the signals are always sent right from the top as to what is right and wrong, expected and rejected, permissible and impermissible, the climate of the organization in a profession that Christie himself noted “is not [a game of] bean-bag.” If the Fort Lee bridge closings were the rogue operation suggested by Christie, how could a seasoned senior staffer like Ms. Kelly think such an operation appropriate? There is too much here that does not fit with the real world, as we know it.
But I believe we will get answers in time.
A Criminal Investigation Is Getting Underway
Given the fact that Bridget Kelly may have been part of a criminal conspiracy, and given that she will now be the object of a number of investigations—from that of the U.S. Attorney’s Office to that of the Port Authority, and the New Jersey State Assembly, if not more—with time we will learn if Ms. Kelly is trying to take the fall for her boss, or is being scapegoated by him. In the long run, neither scheme will work any better that the tollbooth closings did.
Governor’s Christie’s political opponents are calling for state and federal criminal investigation, as is the head of the Port Authority. But what law, if any, has been violated? Two key players, Christie’s former appointees to the Port Authority, have hired criminal lawyers. It is not clear what laws have been violated, but that question will soon be answered too.
For example, noting that, as U.S. Attorney, Chris Christie was always inventive at prosecuting Democrats, many in New Jersey are wondering if his successor will be as inventive at prosecuting Republicans. New Jersey reporter noted this fact and went looking for an answer. He quickly learned that it was less than clear which, if any, laws have been violated. Christie’s own best weapon when prosecuting Democrats is no longer good law. That clause is the “honest services” clause of the federal mail-fraud statute. This statute was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Skilling v. United States (2010).
Here, the only conspicuous criminal activity was the conspiracy formed by Christie’s aides to undertake their nefarious political undertaking, but whether this activity was a federal conspiracy is not clear. It takes very little to create a criminal conspiracy, and these statutes are favorites of all state and federal prosecutors. But given the fact that New Jersey’s state prosecutors are all appointed by Governor Christie, most observers believe that only federal prosecutions may potentially be launched.
As is often the case with the early phases of a scandal, there are far more questions than answers. But perhaps that’s what makes them interesting?