Christie's Exoneration By His Own Lawyers Is Even More Conflicted Than It Looks

by Alec MacGillis | March 24, 2014

Did you hear? Chris Christie has been cleared of any wrongdoing in the three-day lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in September launched by his aides and Port Authority appointees as retaliation against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee. So, who issued the exoneration—was it the legislative committee that’s been looking into the closures? Or the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey who is also investigating them?

No, it was Christie’s own lawyers. The New York Times reports:

With his office suddenly engulfed in scandal over lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey two months ago summoned a pair of top defense lawyers from an elite law firm to the State House and asked them to undertake an extensive review of what had gone wrong.

Now, after 70 interviews and at least $1 million in legal fees to be paid by state taxpayers, that review is set to be released, and according to people with firsthand knowledge of the inquiry, it has uncovered no evidence that the governor was involved in the plotting or directing of the lane closings…It will be viewed with intense skepticism, not only because it was commissioned by the governor but also because the firm conducting it, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, has close ties to the Christie administration and the firm’s lawyers were unable to interview three principal players in the shutdowns, including Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor’s former deputy chief of staff.

But lawyers from the team who led the inquiry are prepared to vigorously defend their work, which they described as an unfettered look into the inner workings of an administration known to prize loyalty and privacy.

Lower down in the article, it notes: “Gibson Dunn has worked for the administration in the past, and Mr. Christie is friendly with a top partner there, Debra Wong Yang, who like him was appointed United States attorney by President George W. Bush in the early 2000s.”

That’s putting it mildly. What the article does not note is that Debra Wong Yang was one of six lawyers who received highly lucrative contracts from then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie in 2007 to monitor a half-dozen medical device makers as part of a “deferred prosecution agreement” he reached with the companies after an inquiry into allegedly fraudulent billing practices. The contract that got the most attention when they were inadvertently disclosed in 2008 was the one awarded to John Ashcroft, who had been Attorney General at the time of Christie’s selection as U.S. Attorney in 2001, and who received between $28 million and $52 million for 18 months of work. Another contract that drew scrutiny at the time was the one that went to the former U.S. Attorney for Manhattan, whose office had just two years earlier opted not to bring criminal charges against Christie’s brother, a Wall Street trader who had been named in a civil SEC complaint but, unlike most of the others in the complaint, had not been hit with criminal charges as well. Both that contract and the Ashcroft one were the target of questioning by a House committee that called down Christie in 2009; the contracts also prompted a revision of Department of Justice guidelines for deferred prosecution agreements.

Now, two of the other contracts have come under more scrutiny. One, worth $10 million, had gone to David Samson, a former state attorney general whom Christie went on to name chairman of the Port Authority and who is now the subject of several federal subpoenas himself as the lane closures investigation broadens out into other matters involving the Port Authority.

And another, the amount of which has never been disclosed, went to Yang, who had in 2002 become the first ever Asian-American woman to be named U.S. Attorney. Her selection as a corporate monitor by Christie had raised fewer questions than the others, beyond the fact that she was a loyal Republican with close ties to Alberto Gonzales, who succeeded Ashcroft as attorney general. But as the Star-Ledger of Newark recently noted, Yang had in 2011 introduced Christie at a 2011 event in New York in glowing terms that suggested their association went beyond being merely fellow former prosecutors, describing him as her "very dear friend” and "truly the real deal."*

And now Christie has hired her firm, where she is co-chair of the white-collar defense and investigations practice group, to lead the taxpayer-funded inquiry into his administration. In fact, Yang is part of the team working on the case, according to Randy Mastro, the former deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani who is leading the team for Gibson Dunn.

Neither Yang nor Christie’s spokesman responded to requests for comment today, but Mastro previously dismissed concerns about any conflict between Yang’s receipt of the lucrative contract from Christie and her work on the team “investigating” his administration. "The work that Deb Yang performed years ago for a private company is completely unrelated to the work now being done in New Jersey today," Mastro told the Star-Ledger. "Her reputation for integrity and independence is unparalleled. She was one of the most respected US Attorneys in the country and, before that, a distinguished California judge."

This of course sidesteps the question: the work was indeed paid for by a “private company,” a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. But Yang got the job from Christie.

It should be noted that Yang’s history with Christie is only one of a tangle of associations and potential conflicts among lawyers and clients in the legal fallout from the lane closure scandal. Mastro, the lead Gibson Dunn lawyer representing Christie, had until recently been representing the Port Authority on a case challenging its toll increases. Port Authority Chairman Samson’s lawyer is Michael Chertoff, the former secretary of Homeland Security who is a predecessor of Christie’s as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey.

Most notable, perhaps, is the representation for Bridget Anne Kelly, the former Christie aide who issued the “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” order and whose testimony, if any, will be so crucial to the investigation. She first hired as her lawyer Walter Timpone, whom Christie had selected as his chief deputy as U.S. Attorney before having to choose someone else when it emerged that Timpone had not been candid about a visit he paid to the home of then-senator Robert Torricelli, who was under federal surveillance at the time as part of an investigation into possible campaign finance abuses and had played a key role in signing off on Christie's nomination as U.S. Attorney. Soon after Kelly hired Timpone, he stepped back from the case because of a potential conflict, his role as the Christie-appointed vice chairman of the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission. So Kelly instead turned to Michael Critchley, one of the most top (and reputedly most expensive) defense lawyers in the state, who has done a lot of representation of George Norcross, the powerful Democratic boss from South Jersey with whom Christie has enjoyed a mutually beneficial alliance. In fact, it was Critchley who set up a legendary 2003 dinner in New Brunswick between Christie and Norcross, at a time when Norcross was under state investigation—an investigation that was later referred to Christie but he decided to pass on.

In other words, a lawyer with very close ties to George Norcross, who already has considerable leverage over Chris Christie given Christie's reliance on him for providing Democratic votes in the legislature, is now advising Bridget Kelly on whether she should or should not cooperate with prosecutors from Chris Christie’s former office in their investigation into what really happened inside Christie’s administration in the matter of the retaliatory lane closures.

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave”—Sir Walter Scott wouldn’t even know where to start with this one.

*Addendum, 8:30 a.m., March 25.: As Matt Katz at WNYC has reported, Yang also contributed $500 to the fund to pay for Christie's second inauguration this past January, just before she and her firm were hired for the taxpayer-funded job of representing him. Oh, and they went wild-pig hunting together at a game ranch in Texas.

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