After 2 reports, no Christie link to bridge plot
GEOFF MULVIHILL & MICHAEL CATALINI
Dec. 06, 2014
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — One report has been derided by critics of Gov. Chris Christie as a whitewash; his defenders see the other as a partisan smear-job against the governor.
But both a new interim report for a legislative committee investigating the politically motivated lane closures last year near the George Washington Bridge and one commissioned by the governor's office and released in March reach a similar conclusion: There is no evidence that Christie participated in the scheme or knew about it as it happened.
They also share a shortcoming: Neither group of investigators had access to some witnesses who may be able to say definitively whether Christie had a role.
Still, the Republican governor's supporters say the report released this week clears him. But it's not the final word on the scandal or whether it could derail his possible 2016 presidential bid. The U.S. attorney's office is conducting a criminal probe; there is no indication of when that will wrap up.
The lawyer for the special joint legislative committee, Reid Schar, found no conclusive evidence that Christie was aware of the lane closures, but he said two former Christie aides acted with "perceived impunity" and with little regard for public safety when they ordered the lanes closed.
Among the questions that remain from the committee's hearings: the content of text messages that aide Regina Egea sent Christie last December during hearings about the traffic tie-up. Lawmakers had requested such communications, but none of the texts was provided. Egea later told the committee that she texted the governor messages that were "not at all substantive" and that the witnesses before the panel were "professional." She said she later deleted the messages.
The committee did not get the messages — an indication, the report says, that Christie also deleted them.
The report also blasted Christie's office for responding "slowly and passively" as it became apparent after the lane closures over four mornings in September 2013 that they were created for political reasons. The report said that "lack of curiosity" could have been "because they knew or suspected a more damaging true story and preferred that it not come to light." But the report stopped short of accusing the office of engaging in a cover-up.
Asked about the report after giving a speech in Toronto on Friday, Christie would not answer. "I'm here to talk about Canada, not that," he said.
Randy Mastro, the lawyer who led Christie's own investigation, says the legislative report corroborated his work.
The report says it could not draw firmer conclusions largely because several potentially important witnesses were not interviewed. Some asserted their constitutional right not to incriminate themselves; others were put off-limits by the U.S. attorney's office.
It is not clear when, or if, the lawmakers may have more findings.
Just as Democrats in March criticized the report commissioned by Christie as more concerned with defending the governor than investigating him, Republicans on Friday questioned the motives of the Democrat-led probe.
Senate Republican leader Tom Kean Jr. said the committee was a waste of taxpayer money and didn't tell the public anything it didn't already know. "I think the committee has outlived its usefulness and should pack up," he said.
The report comes as Christie is laying the groundwork for a potential presidential campaign.
Analysts see good and bad for the governor's prospects coming from the report, which was leaked to several media outlets Thursday as Christie was on a trade mission in Canada that appeared to be aimed partly at helping him build his foreign policy credentials and look like a leader on the world stage.
Ben Dworkin, a political scientist at Rider University, said voters outside New Jersey might not care much about the bridge, but they will notice something that makes Christie seem like a "typical, petty politician."
But neither Dworkin nor Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison believes this will sink Christie.
"As it now stands, without an indictment, without a direct link to the governor," Harrison said, "this has not proven to be a deal breaker for the governor."
Democrats, of course, have a different take: "We know today what we knew almost a year ago," Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin said in a statement, "Chris Christie created the culture within his administration that led to 'Bridgegate.'"
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in Newark, New Jersey, and Charmaine Noronha in Toronto contributed to this report.
Follow Mulvihill at http://www.twitter.com/geoffmulvihill and Catalini at http://www.twitter.com/mikecatalini