Christie-appointed review clears governor in bridge scandal

NEW YORK - The law firm retained by the Christie administration to investigate September lane closures at the George Washington Bridge declared Thursday that "not a shred of evidence" implicated the governor in the scandal.

Instead, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher said in a 360-page report that two former allies of Gov. Christie had carried out the traffic jams that have become an unlikely thorn in the governor's side as he contemplates a run for the presidency in 2016.

"Sometimes people do inexplicably stupid things," Christie told Diane Sawyer of ABC News in a nationally televised interview Thursday. "And so that's what makes it so hard then as the guy in charge - none of it made any sense to me, and to some extent still does not."

Calling the report a "vindication" of Christie, attorney Randy Mastro said at a news conference that his firm's 10-week review found the governor "had no knowledge beforehand of this George Washington Bridge realignment idea, and that he played no role whatsoever in that decision or the implementation of it."

Yet the law firm - which was commissioned by Christie to conduct an internal review of the bridge scandal and allegations of improper distribution of Sandy recovery aid - was unable to interview several key players, including those it said carried out the lane closures that clogged traffic in Fort Lee: David Wildstein, a former Port Authority official, and Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor's former deputy chief of staff.

Regarding Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer's allegations that the Christie administration withheld Sandy relief funding from the city to coerce Zimmer into advancing a stalled real estate project, the report termed the allegations "unsubstantiated and, in material facts, demonstrably false." Gibson Dunn did not interview Zimmer.

New Jersey Democrats questioned the independence of Gibson Dunn's review. Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen), cochair of the legislative committee investigating the lane closures, said at a Statehouse news conference that she would like to see Mastro come before the panel to answer questions about his review.

"He did what the governor paid him to do," she said.

'Hard to believe'

The investigation, financed by New Jersey taxpayers, has cost $1 million, according to multiple media accounts. A spokesman for Christie did not respond to an e-mail seeking confirmation of the figure. The taxpayers' tab for the legislative inquiry was $200,000 as of Jan. 31, according to the Asbury Park Press.

"The idea that Bridget Kelly and David Wildstein by themselves concocted the lane closures is frankly hard to believe," said Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), cochairman of the legislative investigatory committee.

In a conference call with reporters, he said the report had several deficiencies, namely the lack of input from several key players. He said details of two former Christie aides' personal relationship were "gratuitous" and were perhaps included to "add a salacious element."

Perhaps anticipating skepticism of the report, Mastro pointed to the five former federal prosecutors present at the news conference who helped conduct it. They reviewed 250,000 pages of documents and conducted 70 interviews, Mastro said. The lawyers interviewed Christie and read both his public and private communications, as well as those of his staff, said Mastro, who once served as a deputy to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

"It serves no one's interest," Mastro said, "for us to have done anything other than to try to get to the truth here."

"There are other investigations that will make findings after we are done," he said. "We will be judged at the end of the day by whether we got this right."

The report said Wildstein, a former Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, conceived of the plot to close the lanes and sought approval from Kelly.

The two had an "ulterior motive" for closing the lanes, the report said, and "as the controversy grew, Wildstein and Kelly attempted to cover it up."

The lawyers did not find evidence that any other current or former Christie associates were involved in the decision to close the lanes or conceal what had happened. The report said that while Bill Stepien, Christie's former campaign manager, and Bill Baroni, another former Port Authority official, had prior notice of the lane closures, lawyers found no evidence indicating they were aware of ulterior motives.

Gibson Dunn was unable to interview Kelly, Wildstein, Baroni, Stepien, and Port Authority Chairman David Samson, among others. Wildstein and Baroni resigned in December. Christie fired Kelly and severed ties with Stepien in January.

An attorney for Stepien said the report confirmed that his client had not done "anything remotely improper." Stepien and Kelly have invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in declining to cooperate with legislative subpoenas.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark is also investigating the matter.

The report also said another Christie staffer, press secretary Michael Drewniak, recalled Wildstein saying he had told the governor about the traffic jams while they were underway. Wildstein and Christie were photographed together at an event Sept. 11, the third day of the closures. Wildstein's lawyer has said "evidence exists" that contradicts Christie's timeline of when he learned of the closures but has not explained what the evidence is.

"I don't have any recollection of that," Christie said in the ABC interview. "David was one of hundreds of people I spoke to that day. We stood around and spoke briefly."

Christie added: "He didn't say: 'Hey, by the way, Governor, I'm closing down some lanes on the George Washington Bridge to stick it to the mayor. Is that OK?' That, I'd remember."

Mastro, speaking to reporters at a news conference on the 46th floor of Gibson Dunn's Manhattan office, painted Wildstein as a rogue agent with "bizarre" machinations whose motives were difficult to discern.

Wildstein had expressed interest in realigning lanes at the bridge as early as 2010, Mastro said. The report turned up evidence that contradicted the theory that Wildstein and Kelly orchestrated the lane closures because Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, had not endorsed Christie, a Republican, for reelection in November.

Both the campaign and the governor's office knew in March 2013 that Sokolich would not endorse Christie - well before the September traffic jams, Mastro said. By May, Sokolich was on the list of mayors being considered for an honorary appointment, the report said, suggesting his relations with the governor had not soured.

Kelly, meantime, asked a subordinate to destroy a potentially damaging e-mail involving Sokolich's complaints about the lane closures, the report said. The staffer declined to do so.

Gibson Dunn said the traffic jams did not reflect a broader culture of political intimidation in the Christie administration. "The personal or political motives of David Wildstein . . . seem myriad. He seemed to have all sorts of bizarre personal and political animus toward a variety of people," Mastro said. "This may have had nothing to do with anyone thinking they were serving the governor."

'Personally involved'

Attorneys for Wildstein and Kelly did not respond to requests for comment Thursday afternoon.

After Stepien left the governor's office in April 2013 to run Christie's reelection campaign, Kelly took his former job, and the two, who were both single, "became personally involved," according to the report.

But their relationship had "cooled" by August, the report said, and they were not in communication at that point. Stepien's attorney, Kevin Marino, confirmed that account but questioned its relevance.

Its "only purpose is to draw folks' attention away from whatever issues they might focus on and hope for the headline: Stepien and Kelly had a relationship," he said. Including that information was "well below the dignity of these fine lawyers."

The report also offered a rare window into the crisis management of a generally tight-lipped Christie administration.

Inside the mansion

When e-mails surfaced Jan. 8 implicating Kelly - including her Aug. 13 message to Wildstein, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" - Christie called a meeting with his top aides at Drumthwacket, the governor's mansion. "It was an emotional session, in which the governor, welling up with tears, expressed shock at the revelations, directed Kelly's immediate firing for lying to him, and also decided to sever ties with Stepien," the report said.

In response to the lane closures, which the report calls "a breach of public trust," the Gibson Dunn attorneys recommend disbanding the intergovernmental affairs office run by Kelly and reorganizing its functions under an Office of Constituent and Legislative Affairs. They also recommend creating a chief ethics officer and ombudsman within the governor's office.

Regarding the Port Authority, the report calls for the creation of a bistate commission to study and propose an agency restructuring.

It also criticized the use of private e-mail to conduct government business.

856-779-3846 @AndrewSeidman

Inquirer Staff writers Maddie Hanna and Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.