TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — A law firm hired by Gov. Chris Christie says the governor was not involved in a plot to create gridlock near the George Washington Bridge as part of a political retribution scheme.
The taxpayer-funded report was released Thursday by lawyer Randy Mastro.
Mastro and five former prosecutors reviewed the governor’s personal email and interviewed his staff, CBS 2’s Jessica Schneider reported.
It concludes the September lane closures were intended to target Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, but that there was no evidence it was because the mayor wouldn’t endorse Christie.
“We found that Gov. Christie had no knowledge beforehand of this George Washington Bridge realignment idea and that he played no role whatsoever in that decision or the implementation of it,” Mastro said at a news conference.
“Based on our investigation, that David Wildstein was the person who originated this idea and orchestrated it, that David Wildstein went to Bridget Kelly for approval from the governor’s office and that they had an ulterior motive for implementing that decision,” Mastro said, but adding that the report did not conclude what that ulterior motive was.
Mastro said that Kelly, who did not cooperate with the report, tried to cover her tracks when Christie began asking what happened last year by asking a colleague to delete an email about the plot. But the other staffer retained the email anyway, the report said.
Mastro also said that Wildstein suggested he mentioned traffic issues in Fort Lee to Christie at a public event during the lane realignment. But he said Christie did not recall it being brought up and if it was, it would not have registered as significant to Christie, something the governor has said before.
The report relied on interviews with Christie and other officials in his administration and 250,000 documents, many of them emails and text messages.
Democrats said the report is incomplete because it does not include interviews with people central to the plot, including former political adviser Bill Stepien and Kelly, who sent the message, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Christie said requests were sent to Stepien, Kelly and other key players, including Sokolich and Wildstein, but all refused to be interviewed.
The internal report claims Kelly and Stepien had a personal relationship that eventually cooled off, CBS 2’s Christine Sloan reported. Emails obtained by Mastro claim Kelly told a co-worker she was sorry to tarnish her office. In another, Kelly apparently says “I am on fire … I am irate” after allegedly finding out Fort Lee’s mayor spoke to her male co-worker. State Sen. Loretta Weinberg said it says something about Christie’s leadership.
“What they’re describing is the kind of manager … who hired two people he now describes as looney,” Weinberg said.
The report came out ahead of any results from independent investigations by federal prosecutors and a special committee of state lawmakers.
Mastro’s report also found no evidence that Christie tied Superstorm Sandy aid for Hoboken to support for a private redevelopment project and called Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegations “demonstrably false.”
Zimmer claimed she received threats from, among others, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno to advance a stalled real estate project in Hoboken. Zimmer has said she was led to believe her approval of the project was tied to how much Sandy aid Hoboken would receive.
The report claims Zimmer changed her story several times and that her accounts of meetings with Guadagno and others aren’t supported by other witness accounts or documents created at the time.
Zimmer fired back and issued a statement denouncing the report.
“Randy Mastro could have written his report the day he was hired and saved the taxpayers the million dollars in fees he billed in generating this one-sided whitewash of serious misconduct by the Christie Administration,” Zimmer said.
“This report only reinforces the soundness of the decision I made not to cooperate with Mr. Mastro’s so-called investigation. To do so would only have leant credibility to an effort that, unfortunately for the taxpayers of New Jersey, has no credibility or legitimacy whatsoever.”
“Mr. Mastro stated that none of the interviews that were conducted were under oath. I remain ready and willing to testify under oath as part of any legitimate investigation,” Zimmer said.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Sen. Weinberg, co-chairs of a legislative panel investigating the lane closings, issued a statement saying they will “continue to pursue our investigation wherever the facts lead.”
“Lawyers hired by and paid by the Christie administration itself to investigate the governor’s office who then say the governor and most of his office did nothing wrong will not be the final word on this matter,” the statement said. “The people of New Jersey need a full accounting of what happened. This review has deficiencies that raise questions about a lack of objectivity and thoroughness.”
Weinberg also told 1010 WINS that they have plenty of questions for Mastro.
“There was nobody under oath as far as I know,” she said. “We’ve been asking for the rest of the documents from the governor’s office — those were held up until this public relations report was put out today. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions and let Mr. Mastro come before our committee and answer them.”
“Well, it reads more like a novel than a work of fact,” Wisniewski told WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell.
He calls the report deficient in part because Kelly and Wildstein were never interviewed.
“And it is very difficult, for instance, to determine who is telling the truth when you don’t hear from all sides,” Wisniewski said.
Defending the report at a news conference Thursday, Mastro said, “We believe we have gotten to the truth or we wouldn’t be reporting it.”
Five people close to Christie have lost their jobs in the wake of the scandal, including Kelly, whom he fired, and Stepien, who managed both of Christie’s gubernatorial campaigns and was said to be in line to run any presidential bid.
Emails already released during the investigation show that Stepien was aware of the lane closings while they were happening.
Christie maintains he knew nothing about the plot’s planning or execution and found out about it later.
As part of the report, Mastro issued recommendations that called for Christie’s office staffers to cease using personal email accounts for official business, eliminating the office where Kelly had worked and appointing an ethics officer in the governor’s office.
He also recommended major changes to the structure of Port Authority. The report calls for changing how Port Authority commissioners are appointed and how long they serve. It also urges legislation to increase transparency.
Mastro’s tab is said to top $1 million, which will be paid by New Jersey taxpayers.
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