The good news for Chris Christie is that some of the country’s most prominent pundits believe that nearly three months after the George Washington Bridge scandal first broke, the New Jersey governor is in good shape.
“You go around and you talk to Republicans, and they like Chris Christie more today than they did three months ago … other than Jeb Bush, he still has the clearest path to this nomination,” said“Morning Joe” host and Politico columnist Joe Scarborough last Tuesday, apparently not as an April Fool’s joke. Scarborough reasoned that the liberal media’s Christie pile-on might have endeared the governor to some conservatives put off by his post-Hurricane Sandy embrace of President Barack Obama.
The bad news for Christie is that unlike some pundits, federal prosecutors are not persuaded by white-shoe law firms’ “independent” investigations or confrontational press conferences during which politicians are said to have regained their “mojo.” Political pundits don’t tend to think like lawyers; they’re focused on the horse race. It’s no wonder the narrative thus far has downplayed legal liability.
I noted this divide in January, when I predicted that Christie’s real problem was legal, not political, and that he would ultimately be brought down not by Bridgegate itself but by an unrelated investigation stemming from it in the same way that Monica Lewinsky had nothing to do with an ill-fated Arkansas land deal called Whitewater and Al Capone went down for tax evasion. Federal prosecutorial tentacles would make an octopus envious. And so despite two marathon press conferences, a 360-page report produced after an internal investigation by Christie’s lawyer Randy Mastro and beheadings for much of his inner circle, Christie is actually in worse shape than he was in when the scandal first broke.
The first reason for this is simple. As I know all too well, having gone to prison for charges related to campaign finance violations, years can elapse between the time federal agencies first begin probing a target and the time they actually bring charges, and the deliberate, exhaustive nature of federal investigations is legend. (To take one example, when I reported for my post-conviction interview with agents, they knew the dates I had visited a casino and amounts of money I had withdrawn from an ATM a decade earlier, despite this being totally unrelated to the investigation.) Just ask Vincent Gray, the soon-to-be former mayor of Washington, D.C., who has been on the defensive after a multi-year federal investigation into his campaign finances. The recent lull in the Christie case (briefly interrupted Friday afternoon by the appearance of Christie press secretary Michael Drewniak before a grand jury) may be just an illusion—a glassy ocean surface with vicious activity occurring in the depths. No one who talks to the feds would breathe a word, for multiple reasons, from the obvious (prosecutorial orders/fear of an obstruction of justice charge) to the more subtle (the shame of snitching on a beloved boss and patron).
Christie’s continuing travel and exceptional fundraising as Republic Governors Association chair and likely presidential candidate is aimed in large part at combating the impression of a weakening governor with all avenues of political advancement quickly closing. But given the length, breadth and opacity of federal investigations, this is like a surfer in the eye of the hurricane exhorting his pals, “Rain’s stopped – surf’s up!”
Perhaps there’s even a whiff of denial on Christie’s part: If I just pretend that everything’s back to normal, and wow the national Republican audiences who like me more than ever, maybe this will all fade away.
I know the psychology well: After the feds knocked on my door the morning of my re-election kickoff fundraiser, I gritted my teeth, raised $100,000 that night (on the advice of counsel, who recommended that I proceed as if nothing were amiss) and wished the successful event could make it all go away. (I ended up returning all the donations.) But while a federal target is traipsing around with billionaires in Orlando and Las Vegas, the gears of justice continue grinding away with a singular focus. When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail; and for federal prosecutors focused on public corruption, the bigger the public figure, the larger the scalp. Of course, the only thing sweeter than bringing down a front-running presidential candidate would be nabbing one who made his name prosecuting public corruption as a U.S. attorney.
The second reason Christie may be in worse shape now is the accumulation of troubling information about David Samson. The Christie-appointed Port Authority Commission chairman’s continued silence in the face of emails suggesting that he wanted to “retaliate” against Port Authority staff who re-opened the lanes is disturbing enough. In another e-mail, Samson accused the authority’s executive director, Patrick Foye (who was appointed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat) of “stirring up trouble” by talking about the lane closures. Both of these contemporaneous emails strongly indicate that if – as Christie has maintained – Samson denied knowing the reason for the lane closures, he was lying. If Samson, per the emails, knew the truth then and told Christie, the governor has been lying. Neither option suits Christie, which may explain why the internal investigatory report essentially ignored the emails.
But far more problematic from a legal perspective are the myriad conflict of interest questions raised by the involvement of Samson’s law firm, Wolff & Samson, in Port Authority business. First came Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegation that New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, a Christie ally, threatened to withhold hurricane recovery aid to Hoboken – one of the state’s hardest hit cities – unless Zimmer agreed to support a billion-dollar development project spearheaded by a Wolff & Samson client. Guadagno strenuously denies that accusation as “false” and “illogical,” but MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki obtained emails related to the project sent from a Wolff & Samson attorney representing the developer to a Hoboken city attorney, pressing Hoboken’s attorney to speak with Samson and copying him on the email. If the Port Authority chairman’s law associate was trying to muscle the city into green-lighting a development—and keeping him in the loop on his activities—that would obliterate the line between Samson’s personal business interests and his public role as chairman.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman is investigating this alleged incident as a potential violation of the federal “honest services” fraud statute, and has interviewed several Hoboken city officials including Mayor Zimmer, who offered contemporaneously written diaries to prosecutors. Last week, Hoboken’s City Council waived the city lawyer’s attorney/client privilege, freeing him to speak to the grand jury investigating and potentially corroborate Zimmer’s account of events; reports indicate that Zimmer contemporaneously told four other people of Guadagno’s threat as well. Given the very real possibility of prison for Zimmer if the diaries or her allegations are demonstrably false, it seems unlikely that she would concoct this story and come forward voluntarily. If a grand jury believes that Guadagno made the alleged threat and was instructed to do so by Christie or Samson, Guadagno (and anyone who directed her) would be in legal peril.
What does all this mean for Chris Christie? The available evidence suggests that Samson is in real danger of an indictment, and Christie and his lawyers’ desperate effort to shield him from any blowback indicate that they are acutely interested in keeping him quiet. Christie implied in announcing Samson’s resignation that the 74 year-old may simply have wanted to relax, but assuming that prison is not the ideal retirement community, Christie must be concerned about Samson’s exposure—and potentially his own. And based on my knowledge of federal investigations, if Samson is indicted, the only way he’ll likely be able to avoid prison is by revealing knowledge of wrongdoing by Christie – knowledge that, as the governor’s longtime mentor and close ally, he may be uniquely situated to possess. As Christie knows better than anyone, the feds don’t hand out immunity like pediatricians hand out lollipops. And neither judges nor parole boards appear to resist elderly incarceration; indeed, seniors are the fastest growing generational cohort in federal prisons. So if Samson is indicted and wants to die a free man, he probably has to give up something meaningful – i.e., Christie.