As prosecutor, Christie struck unusual deals
As the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey, Chris Christie struck an unusual deal with Bristol-Myers Squibb.
In exchange for not charging the drug-making giant with securities fraud, Christie's office would require it to fund a professorship at Seton Hall University's law school - Christie's alma mater.
The $5 million gift, one component of a larger agreement between the company and prosecutors, was hailed by the South Orange, N.J., school as a cornerstone of its new center on business ethics.
But Christie's superiors in the George W. Bush administration were uneasy about it, worried it could look like a U.S. attorney using his authority for a pet cause.
Christie said the idea was not his but part of a negotiation between his prosecutors and the firm. In any case, spurred on by the Seton Hall deal and other out-of-court settlements by Christie's office, Justice Department officials enacted rules placing limits on prosecutors' discretion in reaching such deals.
"It was something you wanted to tamp out before every U.S. attorney in America built a new summer camp," said one former Justice official involved in reviewing new rules who, like two other senior officials, spoke on condition of anonymity.
A spokesman, Kevin Roberts, said that Christie, as U.S. attorney, used the agreements as a tool to "hold corporations accountable without punishing innocent employees who were not at fault in any corporate wrongdoing."
"They continue to be used today by prosecutors across the country and remain highly praised by the Obama administration," Roberts said.
Christie was sworn in as U.S. attorney in January 2002. He had spent two years as a lobbyist, made a failed run for the state legislature and been voted out office after one unpopular term as a county freeholder. Some deemed him unprepared to be the top federal law enforcement officer in New Jersey. Many attributed his appointment to his fund-raising prowess for President George W. Bush.
But he won over most skeptics on his staff. Former assistant U.S. attorneys who worked under Christie say he won their respect by acting professionally, and by the personal touch he brought to the job.
"His background was a little different than most appointees, he had more political experience," said Jeffrey Clark, an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted public corruption under Christie until 2004. "But . . . I never once saw, or got any hint, that he let politics affect a case."
In Washington, Christie's bosses were concerned about the appearance of several deals he struck with corporations that agreed to change their ways if they weren't charged in cases involving financial irregularities. Typically, U.S. attorneys appoint independent monitors, who often receive millions of dollars in fees paid by the companies. Justice officials were uncomfortable about seven agreements Christie signed, because he had appointed political supporters as monitors in some of the cases.
One group of cases drew particular attention. Five orthopedic makers were found to have paid what prosecutors characterized as kickbacks to surgeons who used their devices. The monitors chosen to oversee each company were all seen as close to Christie, including former state attorney general, David Samson, whom Christie later appointed to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Samson, who still works there as its chairman, has been subpoenaed by New Jersey lawmakers looking into the George Washington Bridge controversy.
Another Christie-appointed monitor was Republican John Ashcroft, who as U.S. attorney general had been Christie's boss. The fees for Ashcroft's firm to oversee Zimmer Holdings were not cheap - an estimated $28 million to $52 million for 18 months of work. The 2007 deal drew criticism from Democratic lawmakers and became national news, leading then-Deputy Attorney General Craig Morford to launch a review of these deals at U.S. attorney offices across the country.
Seeking to avoid future arrangements like the Bristol-Myers Squibb professorship at Christie's law school, the department in May 2008 issued a ban on requiring companies to make special payments to unrelated outside groups as part of their settlements. Payments were only allowed if the recipients were harmed by the alleged crime or would help address the specific problem caused by the conduct.