New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s former point man at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey “was camped at the U.S. Attorney’s office” in Newark last week meeting with federal prosecutors investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closings, according to one of several people close to the case.
David Wildstein, who has said he informed Christie of the lane closings on Sept. 11 as they were happening, spent several days at New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman’s office in Newark, the people said. Neither Fishman’s spokeswoman nor Wildstein’s attorney would confirm the talks.
In addition, Charlie McKenna, former chief counsel to Christie, met secretly in mid-January with investigators working for Fishman, who is leading the Justice Department probe into the September lane closings.
Neither meeting has previously been reported. Along with the recent revelation that Christie press secretary Michael Drewniak testified last week before a federal grand jury investigating the lane closings, the meetings suggest Fishman is making progress in the high-profile probe of suspected public corruption.
Wildstein’s meetings indicate that prosecutors may have struck a deal with him. The former Port Authority official publicly asked for immunity from prosecution in January, after supplying state legislators with the infamous email trail that begins, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein’s attorney Alan Zegas did not respond to recent messages seeking comment. In January Zegas said if his client “has immunity from the relevant entities, he’ll talk.”
McKenna, meanwhile, could have highly valuable information that might undermine the official line that the lane closings were part of a traffic study.
McKenna spent 18 years as a Justice Department prosecutor before departing the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s office in 2010 to join the governor’s cabinet. He may now be a subject of the probe by an office he once helped to lead as Executive Assistant and chief of the Criminal Division under a crusading anti-corruption prosecutor — former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie.
The substance of McKenna’s meeting with federal prosecutors is not known, as neither Fishman nor McKenna’s lawyer, John Azzarello, a former 10-year Assistant U.S. Attorney in Newark, agreed to be interviewed for this story.
Time to cut deals
Deal-cutting is sure to gather momentum in the coming weeks following the March 28 release of the governor’s internal investigation of the lane closings and the Hoboken, N.J., Superstorm Sandy aid allegations, commissioned by Christie at a cost of more than $1 million in taxpayer money.
The 360-page report, depicted as a “vindication” of Christie, by its lead author, Randy Mastro of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP in New York, amounts to a circle-the-wagons defense for the governor. It blames the lane closings on two ex-Christie appointees: the governor’s former deputy chief-of-staff Bridget Kelly, and former Port Authority lieutenant Wildstein. Yet Mastro couldn’t get access to either of them.
“Mastro’s report is an interesting contribution to what Paul Fishman’s doing,” said Professor Daniel Richman of Columbia Law School, a former prosecutor in the Southern District of New York’s U.S. Attorney’s office. “One recognizes its limitations. These reports are starting points. Fishman’s work is ongoing. He may find clashes between what he knows and false statements [to] Mastro.”
To find the true story behind closing the two Fort Lee, N.J., access lanes for five days beginning Sept. 9, Fishman needs information from Christie aides and his top allies at the Port Authority.
It now appears that he has turned to Wildstein, at the Port Authority until his exit on Dec. 6. Wildstein produced to the state legislature the infamous e-mail trail—including Kelly’s “Time for some traffic problems in Ft. Lee” message of Aug. 13. He can also seek information from Kelly, who was in the governor’s office until her public firing on Jan. 8.
Kelly also has offered to cooperate with Fishman’s probe — as recently as March 29 — in exchange for immunity from prosecution. At this point, it doesn’t appear that Fishman has offered Kelly immunity.
Wildstein has said he informed Christie that the lanes had been closed – while it was happening – during a Sept. 11 ceremony marking the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Wildstein told Drewniak about the 9/11 anniversary encounter over dinner on Dec. 4, according to the Gibson Dunn report. Drewniak said he let Christie know about Wildstein’s claim the next day, when the governor wandered into a meeting he was having with the governor’s then-chief-of-staff Kevin O’Dowd. Christie responded that he did not recall speaking with Wildstein about the closures, the report said.
On Friday, the grand jury investigating the lane closings heard witness testimony in Newark from Drewniak, a person familiar with the proceeding said, confirming a television report on ABC. The grand jury had previously met to review subpoenaed material collected by prosecutors.
Fishman already may know whether Wildstein’s former boss at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, can corroborate Wildstein’s claim that he informed Christie about the lane shutdown during the 9/11 anniversary ceremony.
McKenna could say whether Christie was proactively involved in putting the traffic study story forward as an explanation for the lane closures, the person familiar with his meeting said.
Traffic Study Coverup?
In the days leading up to a Nov. 25 hearing before the state assembly, the Port Authority’s own in-house lawyer had coached Wildstein and Baroni to give false legislative testimony to explain the lane closures, according to a Jan. 31 letter from Wildstein’s lawyer Zegas to the Port Authority’s General Counsel, asking the agency to pay for his client’s legal expenses.
That Port Authority lawyer was Philip Kwon, another former New Jersey Assistant U.S. Attorney, said the Wall Street Journal.
Indeed, Baroni—himself a lawyer— told the New Jersey legislature that the lane closures were part of a traffic study. And when Baroni sought assurances about his performance that day, Wildstein texted: “Charlie said you did GREAT.”
“Charlie” was Charlie McKenna, who was then chief counsel to the governor. McKenna likely has information on who enlisted Kwon to coach Baroni. But Mastro didn’t open that Pandora’s Box. His team of Gibson Dunn lawyers did not interview Kwon, Baroni or anyone else at the Port, including Wildstein, who refused to testify, invoking his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Christie then turned to McKenna on Oct. 1 to look into the lane closings, after the Wall Street Journal ran a story quoting from a leaked email from Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye that the “hasty and ill-advised decision [to close two lanes to the George Washington Bridge] violates federal law and the laws of both states.”
Christie also asked his chief-of-staff, O’Dowd, another former Assistant U.S. Attorney in Newark, to investigate with McKenna.
McKenna therefore stood to benefit by meeting early with prosecutors. He was able to get in front of what he might be up against. It was a smart move, a sign of good lawyering, said defense lawyers, who often try to secure early meetings in criminal investigations. Charging decisions are subjective; the earlier a subject goes in and affects that judgment, the better.
As veteran former prosecutors with a combined 28 years of experience between them, McKenna and Azzarello would be keenly aware of the benefits of such an early meeting with prosecutors. McKenna may not have wanted to “get buried” by any inaccuracies in the public record about the apparently concocted traffic study story, said a person familiar with the meeting.
To hear Christie’s lead lawyer at Gibson Dunn tell it, McKenna and O’Dowd did little more than make a telephone call in early October after Christie asked them to investigate. McKenna called Baroni, deputy executive director at the Port Authority, who said the lane closings were part of a traffic study. That explanation, Mastro found, became the party line; it apparently was enough of an explanation for McKenna, O’Dowd and Christie. Yet Mastro never had access to Baroni.
Should Fishman find this narrative to be true, lawyer-ethics maven Stephen Gillers of New York University’s School of Law, said, “any lawyer who coached Wildstein or Baroni to lie to the New Jersey legislative committee will have violated state lawyer-conduct rules. It would not matter that Baroni’s testimony was not under oath.”
Gillers cites New Jersey Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(c), which forbids a lawyer to “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation”; Rule 3.4(b) which forbids a lawyer to “falsify evidence, counsel or assist a witness to testify falsely, or offer an inducement to a witness that is prohibited by law.”
This rule applies to “legislative” testimony by virtue of Rule 3.9, which extends the false testimony prohibition to unsworn legislative testimony. ”It doesn’t matter that the testimony was not under oath,” Gillers said.
Worse yet for Team Christie, Gillers said, false testimony to a state legislative body can become part of the proof Fishman would need “if the USA charges a conspiracy with the testimony in furtherance of it.”
Who gets immunity?
McKenna and O’Dowd saw right away they had a problem and lawyered up; McKenna turned to Azzarello of Whipple Azzarello in Morristown, N.J., O’Dowd hired Paul Zoubek, a top litigator in the Cherry Hill office of Philadelphia’s Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP.
And Baroni hired Lowenstein Sandler’s Michael Himmel in Roseland, a well-known deal-cutter — he flipped Solomon Dwek and thus enabled Christie to bust the bid-rigging operation that brought down corrupt politicians and helped him win the governor’s seat. Himmel did not comment for this story. Baroni recently landed an of-counsel job at Princeton law firm Hill Wallack LLP, which stirred speculation that Himmel may have cut a deal on Baroni’s behalf with Fishman.
One person familiar with Fishman’s investigation said it would be “crazy” to think Baroni got “full immunity.” More likely, this person and others suggest, he may have gotten partial immunity. “Michael Himmel’s modus operandi is to cut deals,” said a lawyer familiar with Himmel’s professional record.
What’s clear: Baroni holds highly valuable information. He was with Christie and Wildstein at the 9/11 memorial ceremony. There are photographs of the three men talking and laughing, at least one taken with Port Authority Chairman David Samson, who resigned March 29. Baroni also can say whether he knew he wasn’t giving honest testimony about the traffic study.
“Bill Baroni has got a ton of information to bargain with,” said a person familiar with Baroni’s knowledge. “Fishman can’t immunize everyone. It’s going to come down to who has the most valuable information. Not just about the bridge, but about the scandal over [alleged] withheld Sandy aid in Hoboken. About Samson using his position at the Port Authority to approve deals that benefited his law firm.”
Fishman’s team of investigators has swelled beyond its original three. He assigned as line lawyers senior litigator J. Fortier Imbert and AUSAs Lee Cortes and Vikas Khanna, leaving for himself the job of ultimate decision-maker in consultation with top staffers Thomas Eicher, head of the Criminal Division; First Assistant William Fitzpatrick; executive assistant Sabrina Comizzoli and counsel John Fietkiewicz.
Fishman’s investigation quickly widened beyond the September lane closures and the attempted traffic study cover-up to include alleged abuse of Sandy aid and an alleged shakedown in Hoboken by a lawyer from Wolff & Samson PC, the New Jersey law firm founded by former Port Authority chairman Samson.
More recently, the Public Corruption Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York opened a separate investigation into Samson’s conduct as Port Authority chairman, three people familiar with the matter said.
The office spokeswoman would not publicly confirm the SDNY probe.
(See: Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Public Corruption Unit Cooperating with NJ on Christie-related Probe)
At this point in Fishman’s probe, he is in a unique position to evaluate Mastro’s findings and potentially to use them. His office is entitled to receive all data and interviews in Gibson Dunn’s file, Gillers said, and so is the legislature– privilege does not extend to public officials in corruption investigations. “The legislature will get what it wants,” Gillers said.
Lisa Brennan covered Christie’s tenure as U.S. Attorney for the New Jersey Law Journal. She previously worked for 20 years at Bloomberg News and various American Lawyer publications. She lives in northern New Jersey.