Jeff Smith: Yes, Chris Christie, the Feds Are Out to Get You

Nothing is ever quite the same after you wake up to the feds pounding on your door. Trust me: I learned the hard way.

Which is why most of the media response to the “Bridgegate” scandal and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s handling thereof feels off to me.

The optimists, including Time and Washington Post political analysts, have asserted that after his “virtuoso” press conference performance, Christie remains the 2016 Republican frontrunner. Somewhere in the middle are Politico and Slate columnists, who acknowledge that this episode may affect the governor’s 2016 prospects. Others less enamored of the governor say that despite his mistakes, the media’s infatuation with him will keep him afloat.

The most pessimistic analysts contend that Christie’s presidential hopes are finished because this episode has highlighted his famously overbearing style, or would force him to change it, which may be beyond his ability and/or cost him support. A few even think his governorship may be in jeopardy based on Bridgegate or the more recent revelation that he awarded a contract to the highest (as opposed to the lowest) bidder for ads featuring his own visage in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Jeff SmithBut other than New York’s Jonathan Chait, who recognized the cumulative weight of multiple investigations at multiple levels of government, most commentators are focusing on the wrong thing: the politics of recent revelations. The few who are focused on the potential criminal violations by Christie aides (and perhaps Christie himself) are focused on Bridgegate and, to a lesser extent, the tourism ad kerfluffle. Was wire fraud committed by anyone who used email to further an illicit act? Do state crimes of willful negligence or public corruption might apply here? Was a federal crime of interfering with interstate transportation committed?

What these pundits forget—and, as Christie, a former U.S. attorney, knows as well as anyone—is the old saw that federal prosecutors can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. They don’t need a bulletproof case. And once they have a target, they aren’t limited to investigating the matter that caught their attention; public corruption probes often widen as new information emerges. Federal prosecutors rarely have just one attack route. Remember, they brought down Al Capone for income tax evasion, not bribery, bootlegging, or murder. The Fort Lee incident may be merely a bridge, if you will, to other Christie administration misconduct. As a former target of a federal investigation that started in one place and ended in a very different one, I’m all too familiar with the unpredictable directions in which these things can go. What piques a prosecutor’s interest during plea negotiations may be totally unrelated to the original crime.

Once the feds have you in their sights, nearly everything else fades away. The pressure to cooperate (read: wear a wire or inform on people who would make bigger scalps than you) is intense. Since nearly 95 percent of federal defendants end up pleading guilty or being convicted, they know the odds are in their favor. And because their resources, unlike yours, are unlimited, they don’t mind going to trial, regardless of the cost.

You, as a target, focus on one thing: trying to stay out of prison. If you can do that without breaking your own personal code, you will. (I could not.) And if you have kids—perhaps especially if you are a recently divorced single mom with four school-age children—a lot of personal qualms may go out the window.

For a U.S. attorney, there is no bigger scalp than the nation’s most powerful governor … who is a frontrunner for the other party’s presidential nomination … and who preceded you in your job. That the governor in question once used his own prosecutorial powers, in the eyes of many New Jersey Democrats, to launch a sting operation that would boost his first gubernatorial campaign by crippling the critical Hudson County Democratic turnout machine might only sweeten a U.S. attorney’s interest in prosecuting Christie. No wonder the governor is lawyering up.

In what may end up being a consequential miscalculation during his marathon press conference, Christie gratuitously trashed his former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, a mother of four who serves on her children’s parochial school board and presumably doesn’t want to be separated from them for several years, as “stupid.” Christie bragged that he didn’t even have to talk to her before firing her, despite the fact that she had been regarded as a close friend. And he dropped Bill Stepien, perhaps his closest political aide, like a still-warm body off a bridge. These are two people who were senior enough and had enough access to him that they presumably know the skeletons in his administration’s closet after four years of hardball politics. Two people in front of whom the feds will dangle the carrot of probation … or the threat of 5-to-10 (at least in Kelly’s case, given her potentially incriminating emails; based on currently available evidence, it will be more difficult to charge Stepien). Two people who, in order to clam up and take the fall, will need an awful lot of faith that they’ll be taken care of when their ordeal ends—faith that he’ll survive this and become president or if not, somehow possess the juice to ensure they won’t be unemployed and broke, their reputations in tatters.

In addition to the very serious Kelly land mine and the potentially serious Stepien land mine, former Port Authority staffer and Christie appointee David Wildstein has already indicated—in unusually public fashion—that he will sing like a canary to stay out of prison. That’s not good news for the two Christie intimates appointed to more senior positions at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni and David Samson. Which is very bad news for Christie, unless this episode happens to be an aberration. Unless the Democratic bosses who control most patronage and power in the state and cut deals to back Christie have never received any state contracts through shady means. Unless Christie aides have been able to divine his political vision so expertly that he’s been able to remain magically aloof from any illicit power moves his administration has pulled.

And if you believe all that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

(Cross-posted, with permission of the author, from Politico.)


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