Trouble in Trenton

Even if Bridgegate is behind Chris Christie, his legal woes may still be looming.

Chris Christie
Gov. Chris Christie at a news conference in Trenton, New Jersey, on Jan. 9, 2014.

Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters

It was already a rough week for Gov. Chris Christie. The New York Times ran a front-page story about his penchant for traveling in high luxury on other people’s dime, just as the New Jersey governor was enjoying a junket to London. Worse, his comments equivocating on the necessity of vaccines threw him together with the libertarian Sen. Rand Paul as the anti-science duo in the emerging 2016 Republican presidential field and earned him a hard slap even from the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page.

But then, late Thursday, came another setback: news that the federal investigation that U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman started a year ago as an inquiry into the politically motivated lane closures at the George Washington Bridge had apparently broadened out yet further, into a matter that could implicate Christie in another episode of apparent political retribution.

It’s unclear just how seriously the feds are pursuing this new angle. But this latest development reminds us that serious legal clouds still linger over Christie’s incipient presidential campaign, notwithstanding the fact that investigators have reportedly found no direct link between him and the lane closures. Because the thing is that it was never just about the bridge. Long before a political appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ordered several local-access lanes to the GW Bridge closed in September 2013, Christie had, both as governor and U.S. attorney, been wielding authority in ways that were bound to bring blowback and scrutiny. That he managed to avoid consequences for so long is a tribute to his ability to portray himself as a righteous crusader against New Jersey’s murky political culture, even as he was making his own compromises with some of the state’s most notorious political operators.

Bridgegate opened a window into all this. Here were Christie’s close aides and allies at the Port Authority conspiring to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, for his refusal to endorse Christie and thereby help him burnish the bipartisan credentials he was seeking in a big 2013 re-election victory. Christie disavowed knowledge of the plot, and late last year a legislative panel looking into the scandal found no evidence that he had a hand in the scheme.

Christie’s boosters hailed this as a sign that he was in the clear for a 2016 run. Far from it. Fishman’s investigation is ongoing, because it has broadened into an array of matters other than the actual bridge closures. His office is still looking into the question of whether Christie’s team was pressuring local Democratic leaders into endorsing him, judging from a recent subpoena of administration records regarding the cancellation of meetings with Democratic mayors who declined to endorse Christie. But it is also looking hard at a close Christie ally, David Samson, a politically connected lawyer whom Christie hired as his campaign counsel in 2009 and later made chairman of the Port Authority. There, Samson became embroiled not only in Bridgegate but in another bit of alleged political retribution being investigated by Fishman’s office: the apparent denial of Hurricane Sandy recovery funds for Hoboken, New Jersey, over a contentious development project that Samson’s law firm had a stake in.

The Manhattan district attorney is conducting its own criminal investigation into the Port Authority’s diversion of $1.8 billion in Port Authority funds, at the behest of Christie’s administration, to pay for non–Port Authority roads in New Jersey. And this week came the revelation that Fishman is scrutinizing Samson on yet another front: his dealings with United Airlines, which has considerable business with the Port Authority and which, curiously, introduced a little-used direct flight from Newark to Columbia, South Carolina, near where Samson has a weekend home, but discontinued it as soon as Samson resigned from the Port Authority last year.  (Samson called it “the chairman’s flight,” according to the Bergen Record.)

Some of the matters for which Samson is under scrutiny have only a tenuous connection to Christie himself. Still, so tightly bound is he with Samson and the Port Authority that a federal case against Samson, should there be one, will be at the very least deeply embarrassing and unhelpful for Christie.

And now comes the word that Fishman’s office is looking into a matter that is very much Christie-related: long-standing allegations by Bennett Barlyn, a former assistant prosecutor in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, that he was fired because he spoke out against the 2010 decision by Christie’s then–attorney general, Paula Dow, to dismiss indictments against the Republican county sheriff and two sheriff’s deputies, all Christie allies. (The indictments revolved around allegations of abuse of power by the sheriff’s office—making employees sign loyalty oaths, threatening critics, and even manufacturing fake police badges for a major Christie campaign donor. The New York Times’ Michael Powell did an exhaustive story on the indictments, and Barlyn’s allegations of a political conspiracy to quash them, in 2013.)

Barlyn has filed a whistleblower lawsuit over his firing and has been trying for several years to have Christie’s administration held to account for the episode. And on Wednesday night he was visited at his Pennsylvania home by two members of Fishman’s office, who heard him out for more than an hour and took with them a thumb drive of documents relating to the Hunterdon case and Barlyn’s dismissal. He told me in an interview Friday that the investigators gave no indication of how seriously they were considering legal action over the Hunterdon case but that he was heartened by their detailed knowledge of the case. “They were conversant with the facts, which suggested they had prepared for it,” he said. “I’m grateful they did respond. It is late in the day, but that just speaks to the culture of New Jersey corruption. … Given New Jersey’s climate of indifference, I’m just glad they interviewed me.”

Christie’s office declined to comment about this new inquiry, but it has previously ridiculed Barlyn’s allegations. “This is conspiracy theory stuff from someone who is obviously casting a wide net with hopes of coming up with a big fish or something,” Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said in 2012. “It’s nonsense.” Meanwhile, statements from Fishman’s office leave open the possibility that it is simply being courteous in meeting with Barlyn—in June, Fishman responded to Barlyn’s entreaties with a letter, obtained by the Associated Press, that stated, “It is not apparent on the face of your submission that there have been potential violations of federal criminal law warranting this Office’s review.” And in response to questions about the meeting with Barlyn, a spokesman for Fishman said, “We talk to a lot of people about a lot of matters but that does not necessarily mean it’s a criminal investigation.” (Update, Feb. 8, 2015, 5:45 p.m.: Fishman’s office went further over the weekend in downplaying the meeting, telling MSNBC: “We talk to people all of the time … Any characterization that we are investigating the governor about this is just not true.”)

But John Wisniewski, the Democratic state assemblyman who led the initial inquiry into Bridgegate, doubts that the feds met with Barlyn just to be nice. “I don’t think the U.S. attorney engages in meetings and inquiries because they’re following a mandate from Emily Post. I think they’re following things that have merit and that they must believe there is a reason to look into this,” he said. “They clearly have taken the early seeds of the Bridgegate investigation and have expanded it into areas that none of us have could have anticipated at the time.”

And meanwhile, of course, the clock is ticking for Christie and his presidential dreams. There have been hints that Fishman would wrap up his investigation by the end of this month, but the fact that he is still branching into new areas suggests that may not be the case, unless he is just dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. So the cloud of potential legal repercussions lingers even as Christie is trying to compete with Jeb Bush and others in the early fundraising rush. That cloud, more than the memory of his careless comments about vaccines, is what Christie is going to wish he had a special elixir to ward off in the weeks ahead.