Gibson Dunn Report: Love, Deceit, But No Big Surprises

By Matt Rooney | The Save Jersey Blog

Bridget Kelly (left) and Bill Stepien (rear right) during happier times.
Bridget Kelly (left) and Bill Stepien (rear right) during happier times.

I’d like to give you something more substantive than that following this morning’s release of the Gibson Dunn internal review of the Christie Administration’s role in Bridgegate, Save Jerseyans, but there you have it. 

The “love” angle. The media’s going to eat it up. There are some other interesting revelations, to be sure, but nothing that matters in terms of what everyone driving this scandal wants to know: what Governor Christie knew, and when did he know it?

Back to all of that in a moment. You can click here to read the entire 235-page document, with exhibits and footnotes, at your leisure. I stand by my comments on the subject made to Chasing NJ on Monday.

Again, the rest of the report doesn’t offer up much else new. Bad stuff? Sure. Just nothing that will surprise or shock anyone who’s been following this story closely like we have, from day #1, here at Save Jersey.

At some points, however, the individual character sketches painted by Gibson Dunn prove more than a little confusing, almost seeming to suggest that key figures were unaware of any ulterior, blameworthy motivation for closing Fort Lee’s lanes to the G.W. Bridge while simultaneously hinting that they were involved in the discussions.

Christie didn’t know. Nothing in the report contradicts that long-standing claim.

Dawn Zimmer is a liar, too (duh). Wildstein and Kelly clearly did, and their motive for affecting the lane closures appears, at least in part, to be political (shocking!). It’s truly the most anyone can say, even over at the U.S. Attorney’s office, without the opportunity to interview Kelly, Stepien, Baroni, Wildstein, Zimmer AND the Mayor of Fort Lee, all of whom declined to be interviewed for the internal report, a fact which Governor Christie confirmed himself on Wednesday night’s Ask the Governor program.

The report does buoy the narrative of a Governor betrayed. And at least one key figure (current Christie press secretary Michael Drewniak) did submit to an interview along with approximately 70 other persons…

Investigators concluded that Drewniak was unaware of any problem underlying the closures in September when Wildstein engaged him on the topic, and right through December when there were substantive interactions between the two:

“Specifically, around this time, Wildstein alleged to Drewniak that Kelly and Stepien had  known about the lane realignment. Although this allegation was vague and Wildstein never  suggested to Drewniak that the lane realignment was anything other than a traffic study or done  for any retaliatory or other ulterior motive, Drewniak believed that, soon thereafter, he conveyed  this allegation to McKenna. Subsequently, on December 4, 2013, Wildstein repeated his allegation to Drewniak and, for the first time, alleged that Wildstein had mentioned the Fort Lee traffic study to the Governor at a public event during the lane realignment.”

The report leaves other “lanes” to the truth wide open, if you’ll pardon the bad pun, which is understandable. It paints the picture of a giant, close-knit group of staffers who hung out socially and go way back, either to the campaign days or even the U.S. Attorney’s office. And yet everyone kept to themselves when the ultimate gossip – a scandal – was developing?

That’s the Democrat line of attack.

The end result remains the same. On page 6, the Administration’s lawyers don’t mince words as to whom they believe is at fault: “As the controversy grew, Wildstein and Kelly attempted to cover it up.”

Kelly’s relatively new role in the Christie inner circle, having not been a key campaign person or U.S. Attorney’s office alum, could prove a key part of the Administration’s defense going forward. It’s even alleged that Kelly tried to get a junior staffer to delete an incriminating email when the heat ratcheted-up:

“The Governor became concerned about what he was hearing and demanded straight  answers from his senior staff. On December 12, 2013, he had further inquiries made of Kelly  and Stepien. Both denied any involvement in the decision to close these lanes. Kelly even  claimed to have searched her emails, showing a couple to the Governor’s Chief of Staff, Kevin  O’Dowd, a former federal prosecutor, but none of the damning private ones proving her advance knowledge and participation. But Kelly was nevertheless panicked by what she considered to be O’Dowd’s “grilling.” She called her staffer, Christina Renna, that same night to make a desperate request: delete the email that Kelly sent to Renna on September 12, 2013, where Kelly, upon learning Mayor Sokolich was “extremely upset,” responded: “Good.” Despite Kelly’s attempt to cover her tracks, Renna preserved a copy of that email.”

Motive? Check.

As for Stepien and Baroni role in the report?

“Our investigation also found that Bill Stepien (then the Governor’s campaign manager) and Bill Baroni (then the Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority) knew of this idea in advance, but we found no evidence that they knew of the ulterior motive here, besides the claimed purpose of conducting a traffic study.”

Lawyers can’t assume facts. That’s a given. But the word “rumor” comes up 12 times in the document, and given what the Gibson Dunn team apparently gleaned concerning Stepien and Kelly’s personal life, the obvious question is how Stepien did not know of the political motive?

An answer of sorts:

“Because Stepien was her “benefactor,” Kelly relied heavily on him during this transition. And at some point after Stepien’s departure to run the campaign, Kelly and Stepien became personally involved, although, by early August 2013, their personal relationship had cooled, apparently at Stepien’s choice, and they largely stopped speaking.”

It’s been reported that Kelly and her golf pro husband have been separated since before Bridgegate broke. Stepien divorced (ironically) a former Baroni aide approximately two years ago. This is the first time (to my knowledge) that allegations of a “personal relationship” have appeared in print.

But that’s not a cover-up per se, a term which implies conspiracy between more than one actor. It’s also not a culture of corruption or permissiveness created by the top of the food chain. Just two bad actors (Kelly and Wildstein) who misled everyone else. That’s the Christie story and the attorneys are sticking to it.

The culture question is most interesting given that it’s not simply a legal analysis so much as one with political dimensions. The answer to that question, specifically, whether Governor Christie was a legally blameless but nevertheless less-than-satisfactory in the leadership department is one which voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and the other early primary states will have to judge, not anyone in law enforcement. The report is conspicuously silent in this respect, offering nothing in terms of criticism pertaining to the Governor’s response or any novel remedial measures other than the appointment of an ethics officer and ombudsman.

There will clearly be a LOT more to discuss after today, Save Jerseyans.

If the Bridgegate internal review is accurate, then the worst you can say for Governor Christie is that he gave some young guns waaay too much rope and they proceeded to hang themselves with it.

Many have dismissed this report outright without seeing it. Others will poke holes until their fingers fall off. I’m not going to attempt to summarize, defend or discredit a giant report in one post. But now you’ve had a taste, and hopefully, you can see where the public discussion is headed after Thursday morning’s presser with Christie Administration attorneys at 11:30 a.m.

 

3 thoughts on “Gibson Dunn Report: Love, Deceit, But No Big Surprises

  1. To have all charges dropped, Christie should claim he needed the closed lanes to traffic illegal firearms. This topic repels investigations like OFF does mosquitoes.

  2. “Bridgegate?” Will you dipsticks stop? It’s like you’re all in the 5th grade. Lincoln’s “HatGate” and the secrets he held under his stovepipe would be a Liberal media frenzy, Lincoln being a Republican an all. Wise up!

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