Supporting Cast in Christie Scandals: Former New Jersey Assistant U.S. Attorneys
By Mary Jacoby | February 6, 2014 2:06 pm

When Chris Christie took office as New Jersey governor in 2010, he staffed his administration heavily with former prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s office he ran as a George W. Bush appointee from 2002 to 2008.

It’s an extraordinary development that many of those former federal prosecutors are now popping up as players in the scandals now swirling around the governor.

These former Assistant U.S. Attorneys are also potential witnesses in the criminal investigation by Christie’s successor as U.S. Attorney, Barack Obama appointee Paul Fishman, as he looks into presumably a range of suspected corruption and abuses of power by the Christie administration. (We can only imagine how awkward it is for Fishman and his staff to be investigating former pillars of the office – some of whom may be personal friends.)

Let’s review the record:

Phillip Kwon

A deputy chief of the criminal division under then-U.S. Attorney Christie, Kwon entered state government in 2009 as a first assistant attorney general after a decade as a federal prosecutor. In 2012, Christie nominated him to serve on the state Supreme Court, but Democrats in a state Senate committee voted the nomination down.

Phillip Kwon

At issue then was revenue from a liquor store owned jointly by Kwon’s mother and wife.

“Democrats focused witheringly on why Mr. Kwon’s mother and wife had deposited cash from the liquor store to its bank account in increments of just under $10,000 almost every day for nearly a year — and how much Mr. Kwon knew about it.,” as the New York Times reported at the time.

Making repeated deposits of just under $10,000 is a way to avoid triggering bank reporting requirements, and can signal an attempt to hide assets.

The IRS investigated the $2.2 million in suspicious transactions, and a civil lawsuit was filed in federal court in Brooklyn. The Kwons agreed to forfeit nearly $160,000 to settle the civil action in December 2011.

After being rejected for the Supreme Court, Kwon’s consolation prize was a job as deputy general counsel at – you guessed it – the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey!

Bill Baroni testifying before the New Jersey state assembly Transportation Committee (Photo by Phil Gregory)

At the Port Authority, according to the Wall Street Journal, Kwon prepped then-deputy executive director Bill Baroni, Christie’s top appointment to the Port Authority, in advance of his now infamous Nov. 25 appearance before a New Jersey legislative committee. That’s the testimony in which Baroni used fancy charts to explain the “traffic study” that was supposedly the reason for the four days of enormous back-ups on the George Washington Bridge.

Baroni resigned three weeks later amid the intensifying fallout from the lane-closure scandal. He was replaced by Deborah Gramiccioni, who served as a New Jersey AUSA from September 1999 to November 2005, when she left to serve in Washington as an Assistant Chief of the Fraud Section in the Criminal Division at the Justice Department, where she supervised Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases. In 2008 she joined the New Jersey attorney general’s office.

Charles McKenna

During the entire time Christie was U.S. Attorney, McKenna served as an Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney, overseeing all Criminal and Civil Division investigations and serving as the office’s top administrator. He spent 18 years in the U.S. Attorney’s office before joining the Christie administration in January 2010 as director of New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness. He later served as Gov. Christie’s chief counsel until December.

Charles McKenna

Moments after Baroni gave his now discredited testimony before the New Jersey state legislative committee, the Port Authority deputy director texted with David Wildstein – the Christie high school friend who was installed at the Port Authority and played a role in the bridge lane closures – seeking “Trenton feedback.”

“Charlie said you did GREAT,” Wildstein texted back at one point, according to emails Wildstein provided to the state assembly.

Democratic state lawmakers have said they believe “Charlie” is a reference to McKenna, then serving in the state capitol of Trenton as Christie’s top lawyer.

Christie later said at a Jan. 9 press conference that he’d asked his top aides, McKenna and chief of staff Kevin O’Dowd, to get to the bottom of whether his staff had been involved in the lane closures.

“Over the course of the next hour, Kevin and Charlie interviewed each member of my senior staff, came back and reported to me that they all reported that there was no information other than what we already knew that had been testified to by Senator Baroni regarding this incident,” Christie said at the news conference.

The governor fired O’Dowd’s deputy, Bridget Kelly, and accused her of lying about her role in the affair. The Wildstein email disclosures revealed she had emailed Wildstein on the morning the toll booth lanes in Fort Lee, N.J., were closed. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote. “Got it,” Wildstein replied.)

Kevin O’Dowd

Kevin O'Dowd

Before joining the Christie administration in January 2010 as deputy chief counsel to the governor, O’Dowd spent nine years in the U.S. Attorney’s office. He prosecuted child pornography, cyber crimes and narcotics trafficking as well as healthcare, securities and financial fraud. Under then-U.S. Attorney Christie, he rose to Chief of the Securities and Healthcare Fraud Unit. He became Christie’s chief of staff in January 2012.

In that position, he supervised Bridget Kelly – she of the “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email. Did O’Dowd really have no idea what his deputy was up to? Christie says not, but that question is one that the state legislative committee investigating Bridgegate and Fishman are undoubtedly exploring.

Marc Ferzan

Marc Ferzan

In December 2012, Ferzan was appointed by Christie to lead the newly created Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, responsible for overseeing federal disaster relief money in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Ferzan became known as the “Sandy czar.”

The Newark Star-Ledger has accused Christie of using disaster relief as a political slush fund. Some $6 million in federal Sandy funds were directed to the town of Belleville, N.J., for a senior citizen’s home. Belleville wasn’t hit by Sandy, but the Democratic mayor had promised to endorse Christie for reelection as governor.

By contrast, the Democratic mayor of Hoboken, N.J. – which was submerged by the storm – didn’t endorse Christie, and her city has seen hardly a dime of disaster relief.

As a Star-Ledger editorial put it: “Lo and behold: Gov. Christie’s spokesman today trotted out Marc Ferzan, the so-called ‘Sandy czar’ he’s kept squirreled away from the public for more than a year, to respond to accusations of dirty politics in Hoboken. You know the damage control is serious when he gets on the phone.”

Ferzan was notably AWOL during the early days of Sandy relief – he failed to appear four times when summoned to joint hearings of the state Senate and Assembly Environment and Energy Committees conducting Sandy relief oversight. “Ferzan’s repeated absences have some asking just what he’s been doing,” The Press of Atlantic City reported last October.

Steve Kornacki of MSNBC has reported that the Christie administration slow-walked a legislative mandate to establish independent monitors to oversee the distribution of funds. As the Star Ledger commented recently on the monitors: “No reports have been filed, and the money they’re preparing to monitor has already been handed out to multimillion-dollar projects that have already been done.”

At the U.S. Attorney’s office under Christie, Ferzan served as Chief of the Commercial Crimes Unit, Deputy Chief of the Criminal Division, and Acting Deputy and Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney. He also previously served as a Trial Attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Tax Division and Senior Counsel with the Securities and Exchange Commission Division of Enforcement.

Jeffrey Chiesa

Chiesa had a turn on the national stage when Christie appointed him to serve for four months in 2013 as as an interim U.S. senator following the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

Jeff Chiesa

Chiesa met Christie in 1988, when he was a year out of college at the University of Notre Dame. They worked together at the New Jersey law firm now known as Dughi & Hewit. Chiesa later earned a law degree from the Catholic University of America in 1990.

When Christie became U.S. Attorney in 2002, Chiesa followed. He served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the special prosecutions divisions before becoming chief of the Public Protection Unit and counsel to Christie.

In 2009, Chiesa joined the Wolf & Samson law firm in New Jersey. Along with Wolf & Samson name partner David Samson, Chiesa headed Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial transition team. He joined the Christie administration the following year, as chief counsel, and in January 2012 was appointed New Jersey attorney general.

Chiesa hasn’t been implicated in Bridgegate, the Sandy relief funds, or any other scandal surrounding Christie. But he’s a trusted counselor who was present at Christie’s marathon Jan. 9 press conference about the bridge lane closings. And he has recently returned to Wolf & Samson – the powerful New Jersey law firm involved in real estate deals that are now coming under closer scrutiny.

The Rockefeller Group, a real estate developer, recently fired Wolf & Samson as its law firm after Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer said Christie administration officials including Marc Ferzan had linked withholding of Sandy relief funds to her refusal to endorse a Rockefeller Group development project on Hoboken’s north end.

The Christie administration and Wolff & Samson have denied any wrongdoing in Hoboken.

Wolf & Samson co-founder David Samson has served since 2011 as chairman of the Port Authority after being nominated by Christie.

Among the emails that David Wildstein provided to New Jersey lawmakers was one mentioning Samson.

“The New York side gave Fort Lee back all three lanes this morning,” Wildstein wrote to Christie’s then-Deputy Chief of Staff Kelly on Sept. 13. “We are appropriately going nuts. Samson helping us to retaliate.”

The email did not explain Samson’s role and it isn’t known what Wildstein meant.

Richard Constable

Christie hired Constable into the U.S. Attorney’s office in 2002, where he was assigned to the anti-corruption unit. Before following Christie out the door eight years later, Constable helped convict the mayor of Guttenberg, N.J,. on extortion and tax charges and send a Linden, N.J., housing official to prison in a bribery and bid-rigging scheme, according to the Star-Ledger.

Richard Constable

Constable left the U.S. Attorney’s office in 2010 to become deputy commissioner for the state Department of Labor. In November 2011, Christie picked him to run the state Department of Community Affairs, an agency that distributes Sandy aid.  Constable took over from Lori Grifa, who returned to her old law firm of … you guessed it … Wolf & Samson.

Now commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs, an agency that distributes Sandy aid to towns, Constable was accused by Hoboken mayor Zimmer of personally trying to pressure her to approve the Rockefeller Group real estate development project.

“We are mic’d up with other panelists all around us, and probably the sound team is listening, and he says, ‘I hear you’re against the Rockefeller project. … If you move that forward, the money would start flowing to you,” Zimmer told MSNBC.

Constable told MSNBC that Zimmer’s allegations were “categorically false.”

Who else allegedly pressured Zimmer? Grifa – then back lobbying for The Rockefeller Group at Wolf & Samson. As the Star-Ledger story says:

Grifa, Zimmer told Kornacki, helped Hoboken up with a $75,000 grant through the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to fund a study on its development when she was commissioner in 2010.

But Zimmer said she was baffled that when the study came out in January 2013, it only recommended developing 3 of the 19 blocks that were owned by the Rockefeller Group. Under the plan, just those three blocks would have been eligible for tax breaks and other development incentives.

Grifa, in a statement from Wolf & Samson published in the Star-Ledger, denied ever meeting with Zimmer about the project.

“Wolff & Samson PC and Lori Grifa categorically deny Mayor Zimmer’s allegations relating to this firm’s role in the Rockefeller Group’s redevelopment project,” the statement said. “The firm’s and Ms. Grifa’s conduct in the representation of our client was appropriate in all respects.”

The third person to allegedly pressure Zimmer? Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, another former prosecutor in the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s office, although her tenure there did not overlap with Christie’s.

An entry from Zimmer’s diary about Guadagno that was featured on MSNBC reads as follows:

“She pulls me aside and says that I need to move forward with the Rockefeller project. It’s very important to the governor. The word is that you are against it and you need to move forward or we are not going to be able to help you. I know it’s not right. These things should not be connected. But they are, she says. ‘If you tell anyone I said it, I will deny it.’”

Guadagno called Zimmer’s allegations “completely false.”

Michele Brown

As the Christie-recommended head of the state’s Economic Development Authority, Brown helped to chose the advertising agency that agreed to feature the governor in taxpayer-funded television ads promoting the Jersey shore recovery after Hurricane Sandy.

Michele Brown

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Inspector General is auditing the contract — which at $4.7 million was more than $2 million over another agency’s bid — amid questions about whether it was awarded to boost Christie’s re-election last November.
Brown held various positions in the U.S Attorney’s office under Christie, who promoted her to First Assistant U.S. Attorney shortly before he resigned in 2008 to run for governor against incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine (D).

In June 2009, Brown pushed vigorously for the FBI to make quick arrests in a massive public corruption investigation known as Operation Bid Rig. The reason: To ensure Christie would get the credit and not his slated Democratic successor, Fishman, the New York Times reported.

Brown’s duties also included handling the Corzine campaign’s Freedom of Information Act requests seeking insight into how Christie ran the U.S. Attorney’s office during his 2002 to 2008 tenure.

The Corzine campaign accused the U.S. Attorney’s office of slow-walking its FOIA requests.

In August 2009, it was revealed that Christie had loaned Brown $49,000 and didn’t report the transaction on his state and federal ethics forms, as required. The loan came in the form of a mortgage Christie took out on Brown’s home after what he described as a rough spot for her family after her husband lost his job.

Chris Christie in the Hurricane Sandy-related ad

Once the FOIA request was finally filled, it turned out that Christie and Brown had been traveling together on business and staying in luxury hotels that exceeded the cost allowance for U.S. Attorneys.

In one trip, Christie and Brown stayed at the boutique NineZero Hotel in Boston on Oct. 16, 2007 (paying $449 plus taxes and fees each for their rooms – double the government allowance), the Associated Press reported. Five days later, Christie made the mortgage loan to Brown.

The Justice Department Inspector General later issued a report on U.S. Attorney abuses of travel expenses – Christie was identified as the unnamed “U.S. Attorney C” in the report. “In terms of the percentage of travel, U.S. Attorney C was the U.S. Attorney who most often exceeded the government rate without adequate justification,” the report concluded.

Brown resigned on Aug. 25, 2009, after news of the loan became a drag on Christie’s campaign.

After Christie won his first term as Governor, he hired Brown as his appointments secretary, and later recommended her for the $250,000 job as head of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

There, she was one of six members of an evaluation committee that awarded the Hurricane Sandy-related advertising contract to public relations firm MMW, which produced the advertising featuring Christie that ran in advance of election day last November.

Christie won re-election as governor by 20 percentage points and began preparing to run for the Republican presidential nomination — a dream that now appears out of reach.

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