Legislators Clear Christie of Wrongdoing

Chris Christie

image courtesy of Republican National Committee

Legislators Clear Christie of Wrongdoing
| published December 5, 2014 |

By Thursday Review staff


The scandal nearly derailed the presidential ambitions of someone arguably at the top of the list of potential Republican candidates for president.

Now, according to a detailed report issued by a joint legislative panel in New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie had no advance knowledge of—or direct participation in—what may have been deliberate lane closures on the George Washington Bridge last year. Those infamous lane disruptions caused enormous traffic jams for several days, and were alleged to have been ordered by top Christie aides in retaliation for political opposition by Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat.

The charges that Christie may have quietly ordered his own people to engage in retribution by creating massive, dangerous traffic jams on one of the busiest bridges in the U.S. rocked Christie’s political fortunes, and triggered a cavalcade of other allegations as well—including that he used political blackmail against other New Jersey mayors, and that he misused federal relief money for Hurricane Sandy to produce slick, expensive television ads featuring himself and his family during an election year.

Until the days and weeks when the scandal evolved into a full-blown media frenzy, Christie was widely considered to be the front-runner among numerous potential GOP candidates for president in 2016—a wide-open year which Republicans hope will give them an opportunity to reclaim the White House. Before the bridge scandal, Christie was the only Republican to score well in public opinion polls against presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

The George Washington Bridge, which also serves as a piece of Interstate 95, connects one of the most populous areas of New Jersey with New York City, crossing the Hudson River between the Hudson Heights area on the New York side and the suburban areas around Fort Lee. The lanes closures took place in September of 2013 and lasted for four days, though no actual repair or construction work was performed. Emails and other records indicate that the closures were ordered by David Wildstein, an official at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (both states share jurisdiction over some of the bridges). Another port authority official, Bill Baroni, told lawmakers and some reporters that the lane closures were part of a long-term traffic flow study, though there were no records indicating that any such study was ever requested or approved. Emails and text messages later revealed what appeared to be evidence that several top Christie staffers had in fact plotted to use the lane closures to punish Fort Lee and Mayor Sokolich.

When the story broke late last year, Christie apologized to Sokolich, and later apologized to a throng of reporters at a two-hour long press conference.

The scandal proved to be a huge distraction to his office at a time when he had already scheduled the annual State-of-the-State address to the New Jersey legislature, and at a time when critical budget issues were underway. Bridgegate, as it quickly became known, also arrived just as Christie was taking over as the new chairman of the Republican Governors’ Association, widely believed to be his most visible platform from which to prepare politically for a run for president in 2016.

The 164-page bipartisan report issued this week by New Jersey legislators clears the governor of any wrongdoing in the bridge scandal, though it qualifies its conclusions by saying that there are still some witnesses who have not been heard from because of pending legal processes. The report also states flatly that some key questions remain unanswered. Though Wildstein originally said the governor knew nothing of the lane closures in advance, he later told some investigators that Christie was in fact fully aware that the retribution was taking place.

Nevertheless, Christie supporters say that the new report (Christie’s own staff and legal team prepared an earlier report which arrived at similar conclusions) is vindication for what the governor has said all along—that his own staff behaved badly, but without his knowledge.

“The Committee has finally acknowledged,” Christie’s attorney, Randy Mastro, said in a statement to the media, “what we reported nine months ago—namely, that there is not one shred of evidence Governor Christie knew anything about the GWB lane realignment beforehand, or that any current member of his staff was involved in that decision.” The full report and its accompanying materials will be released to the public and to journalists on Monday.

In the meantime, an investigation is still under way by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The GOP sweepstakes remain an open question. Christie may regain his status as presumed front-runner, but there are at least a dozen other potential Republican candidates weighing options. Among those most often discussed are Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Mike Pence.

Related Thursday Review articles:

A Super Storm in Jersey; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review (Politics Page); January 20, 2014.

Bridge to Nowhere; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review (Politics Page); February 1, 2014.