Jeff Smith: Chris Christie is Toast

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.

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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for my post-conviction interview with agents, they knew the  dates I had visited a casino and amounts of money I had withdrawn from an ATM a  decade earlier, despite this being totally unrelated to the investigation.)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.

Jeff SmithI 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.

(Cross-posted from Politico)

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