New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie left the campaign trail Thursday to trade punches with congressional Democrats, who — in a transparently political attempt to bloody the Republican front-runner — called him to testify about lucrative monitoring contracts he awarded while he was the state’s U.S. attorney. And it was punchy.
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Christie’s testimony before the House Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law, in which he defended a contract worth up to $52 million to former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s consulting firm, exceeded all expectations, in terms of raw shock factor.
We’ll begin at the end.
After two and a half hours of sparring, Christie up and left the hearing, at 1:30 p.m., as Chairman Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) shouted in his wake, refusing to excuse him. (Christie had a 2 p.m. train to catch, he said.) Outside the committee room, Christie spared a few seconds to explain to reporters that he and the chairman had previously agreed on his departure time. That’s at least half true – Christie did indeed tell the committee in this letter that he had to leave by 1:30 p.m. It would seem, however, that Cohen didn’t agree to his timetable.
The hearing featured a window-dressing panel of scandalously underused experts, including Hogan & Hartson partner Chuck Rosenberg, the former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia; Gary Grindler, Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division; Eileen Larence, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office; and Vikramaditya Khanna, a professor at University of Michigan Law School.
But it was all Christie, defending himself, his office, the efficacy of non-prosecution and deferred prosecution agreements, and his Italian-American heritage. Christie’s chief antagonist was Cohen, who called the Ashcroft contract “outrageous.”
“Even if you took steroids and hit 70 home runs, it’s not worth $52 million,” Cohen scoffed.
The contracts in question derived from five NPAs and DPAs Christie’s office brokered with manufacturers of hip and knee replacements. During a three-year investigation, Christie’s office uncovered a massive kick-back scheme. Rather than prosecute the firms, which, Christie said, would have led to their demise and the loss of about 47,000 jobs — think Arthur Anderson — the office went the monitor route. Ashcroft and his firm made $28 million to $52 million in 18 months for monitoring Zimmer Holdings. Cohen accused Christie, who worked under Ashcroft at Main Justice, of steering the contract to his old boss.
“You gave them an offer they couldn’t refuse,” Cohen said, referring to Zimmer.
At this, Christie took great offense.
“First of all, it is an ethnically insensitive comment to an Italian American. Secondly, you were not in the room in this situation,” Christie said. (Cohen, backpedaling, backpedaling, backpedaling, said he was unaware of Christie’s ethnic heritage.)
Christie said the monitors were recommended on merit, and each company had a chance to object after meeting with them. He recalled that representatives of Zimmer, after meeting with Ashcroft, “came back and said, ‘We got the best monitor.’”
Later, the company’s counsel at Fulbright & Jaworski would complain that Ashcroft’s rates were unreasonable. When they appealed to Christie, he shooed them away. ”Take another stab at resolving the substantive issues raised in your email directly with the monitor,” he wrote in one email to Fulbright partner Rick Robinson. (Democratic staffers handed out the email exchanges at the start of the hearing.)
“If a U.S. attorney got inolved in every dispute between monitor and companies their monitor, the U.S. attorney would have no time to do anything else but moderate those disputes,” Christie said, when Cohen raised the issue.
There were other choice moments in the hearing. Although Christie is leading in the polls over Democratic incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine in a high-profile race, Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) told Christie that “until today, I did not realize you were a candidate for governor.”
Delahunt said the Ashcroft contract highlighted the problem of an appearance of a conflict of interest, as much as an actual conflict.
“I’m not suggesting you did anything improper, but appearances are important,” Delahunt said.
A bill pending in the House Judiciary Committee would add a layer of judicial oversight to agreements. The Justice Department opposes the bill on the grounds that it would diminish prosecutorial discretion. Since 1992, DOJ has entered into about 150 DPAs and NPAs. Last year, the department added new guidelines to the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual for entering into DPAs and NPAs, selecting of monitors and ensuring compliance with the agreements.