TPM Cafe: Opinion

With Walker's Demise, New BridgeGate News for Christie

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AP Photo / Cheryl Senter

At the center of the dispute is the so-called Mastro Report, a document that has often been cited as having ‘exonerated’ or ‘cleared’ the governor of any wrongdoing in or responsibility for the planning and cover-up of the infamous week-long lane closures and traffic jam in the boro of Fort Lee, N.J. Named for Randy Mastro, a partner at the white shoe law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the Mastro Report – at a cost of $5 million to the state – offered a version of events that laid responsibility for Bridgegate at the feet of two Christie lieutenants: David Wildstein and Bridget Ann Kelly.

Wildstein, a high school classmate of Christie’s, was appointed a top job at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that had been created for him at the behest of the governor’s administration. Kelly, a former legislative aide in Trenton, had been Christie’s deputy chief of staff. She and former Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni, Christie’s top staffer at the agency, were indicted by federal prosecutors for conspiring to plan and coverup the bridge lane fiasco in May after Wildstein pled guilty to a narrower set of charges.

Originally scheduled to stand trial this past summer, their trials were delayed until November, and again until March 2016.

The reason is fairly simple: paper. Lawyers for Baroni and Kelly claim they need more time sift through the 1.5 million pages of evidence that was collected by U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul J. Fishman during an investigation that appears to now be pressing closer to former Port Authority chairman and Christie consigliere David Samson. A sliver of this trove has been in the public domain since 2014 after being released during a series of hearings conducted by a N.J. state legislative committee. (I think I have about 50,000 pages of PDFs crammed in my Dropbox.) But most of it has never been seen by reporters or the public, and we didn’t learn much about what might be in there when Baroni and Kelly were charged because nearly all of the paper prosecutors referenced in the federal indictments referenced already-public documents – a deliberate way for them to avoid disclosing new sources.

Which brings us back to the Mastro Report.

Fishman’s office has alleged that Bridgegate was an operation designed to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., Mark Sokolich, for failing to endorse Chris Christie’s 2013 gubernatorial reelection campaign. But Randy Mastro’s investigation reached no such conclusion after beginning in January 2014 when Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher agreed to represent Christie – “the Office of the Governor” – as outside counsel in “all pending Legislative and United States Attorney inquires and related matters.” Mastro and his team interviewed 75 people working alongside or under the governor. They had access to text messages and email.

But instead of producing the kind of Government Accountability Office-style report you might expect from a top-flight law firm using public funds to pursue a public investigation, the Mastro Report is transparently partial toward Christie. It lays blame for the Bridge operation at the feet of David Wildstein and Bridget Ann Kelly by painting them as rogue employees. Meanwhile, Gibson Dunn’s attorneys didn’t interview Port Authority chairman David Samson and seemed to avoid pursuing threads that might have implicated Christie in some way. What’s more, Mastro’s team didn’t provide transcripts or notes to support their adjective-heavy narrative – one in which the word “simply” is used sixteen times and “crazy” appears eight times.

In many ways, the Mastro Report was written to control the damage being done to Christie’s administration and presidential ambitions in a way that was deeply unhelpful to Bridget Ann Kelly and Bill Baroni’s defenses. Yet, at the end of the day, it was an investigation paid for with public money, and the Report – however questionable – is built on the scaffolding of those interviews with seventy-five people who provided fresh recollections of then-recent events to Gibson Dunn attorneys. Under the retention agreement Randy Mastro signed with the Office of the Attorney General, the firm was required to retain records that might be of interest to any future trial.

Not surprisingly, then, Bridget Kelly, who was most harmed by the Mastro Report, wants see those records to determine whether the interviews contained material that could help her defense and guide the questioning of witnesses at trial. Trouble is, Gibson Dunn has been claiming that there were no additional records. They said they kept no notes or transcripts of the interviews they conducted. Gibson Dunn partner Alexander Southwell, whose areas of specialty include electronic discovery and cybersecurity, offered this convoluted description of their work process: “for this investigation, witness interviews were summarized electronically by one attorney while the interviews were being conducted and then edited electronically into a single, final version. Those final interview memoranda were then printed and ultimately released publicly.”

For Bridget Kelly’s attorney, the use of “for this investigation” is a red flag. Gibson Dunn, he writes, “employed a special process and procedure…attempting to digitally shred its interview notes” – a process, he notes, that was at variance with the firm’s standards and practices in a different internal investigation it led just two months before being retained by the Christie Administration.

Although the firm long maintained that they had no records of earlier versions of interview notes or metadata showing which attorneys edited which files, prosecutors supported allowing the defense to seek a federal subpoena for that material. Soon after, U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton agreed to the defense’s request for a subpoena to force Gibson Dunn hand over MS Word documents and other electronic files and metadata.

Since then, the firm has put up a fight to keep that metadata from the defendants. On Monday, Kelly’s attorney Michael Critchley explained why he and Baroni’s team were demanding that material from Gibson Dunn – some of which, it now seems, may indeed exist: They argue that they cannot take Randy Mastro and his team at their word and that they have the right to learn how the interviews were edited in preparing their defense.

As I’ve already written at TPM, the Mastro Report has some problems. Two are worth revisiting in light of this latest turn in the Bridgegate trial.

Of the five Christie staff members who testified under oath to the N.J. legislative committee investigating Bridgegate last year, two raised significant doubts about the accuracy of their interview summaries in Mastro Report.

In May 2014 Christina Renna, who ran the governor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, was asked by lawmakers about whether the Christie Administration regularly issued orders directing staff members to give the cold shoulder to mayors and other officials who hadn’t endorsed the governor’s re-election. She testified that indeed they had; there was a rotating group of mayors who were considered “hands-off,” meaning that their phone calls wouldn’t be quickly returned by the governor’s staffers.

Yet in her testimony, Renna took issue with the way the Mastro Report described such guidance as a set of “mandatory directives” that were relayed to her by her supervisor: Bridget Kelly.

According to Renna, she never used the phrase “mandatory directives” during her meeting with four Gibson Dunn attorneys – a meeting that included Randy Mastro himself. Instead, the phrase was chosen by Mastro and his team and inserted into the summary of Renna’s interview without her knowledge or approval. She first saw it when the Report and summaries were made public.

Renna testified at the time that the linguistic choice made by Gibson Dunn was “alarming” to her “because it’s aggressive language, and it’s not language [she] would have used” to describe the habits and practices within the governor’s office.

Of course, the Mastro Report was not painting a picture of the governor’s office in-general; it was constructing a profile of Bridget Ann Kelly that made her a plausible villain.

A similarly telling discrepancy arose when Christie’s chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, testified before the same legislative committee in June 2014. O’Dowd had been interviewed by four Gibson Dunn attorneys, including Randy Mastro and a former federal prosecutor, Debra Wong Yang, who had previously described Chris Christie as “a very dear friend.”

According to the Mastro Report, O’Dowd told Gibson Dunn attorneys that Bridget Kelly was “habitually concerned about how she was perceived by” Christie.

In public and under oath, however, O’Dowd said he “took exception” to that characterization which had been put into his mouth by Christie’s legal team. “The Bridget Kelly who I knew was…honest, hard working, forthright,” he said. The statements he was reported to have made about her were “not ones that I adopt,” and the description of Kelly offered in his interview summary was “not the Bridget Kelly who [he] interacted with.”

That wasn’t the only problem with the Mastro Report that came out during O’Dowd’s appearance. According to O’Dowd’s interview memo prepared by Gibson Dunn, Gov. Christie in October 2013 asked his chief of staff and counsel – his two closest aides – about “what this lane realignment was all about?” in response to a story in the Wall Street Journal.

According to O’Dowd, however, “that did not happen.” As best he could recall, Christie never asked them about the lane closures, and he seemed unsure about why Gibson Dunn attorneys would claim he said otherwise.

Through her attorney, Kelly has signaled that Renna and O’Dowd are likely to be called as defense witnesses at her trial. If and when that happens, the Mastro Report – as an artifact of the governor’s real-time crisis management strategy – will be front and center, along with the governor’s motivations for commissioning it in the first place.

You can read Critchley’s filing below.