The New Jersey governor's record has come under serious scrutiny — particularly in "Bridgegate," in which two of his ex-aides have been indicted and another has pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges.
Who is Chris Christie?
Chris Christie is the governor of New Jersey and a leading figure in the Republican Party nationally. He first rose to fame after being appointed New Jersey's US attorney, the state's top federal law enforcement official. Between 2002 and 2008, Christie prosecuted and convicted 130 public officials, and built a reputation as a corruption fighter.
Once elected governor, Christie vowed to reform New Jersey's state budget by cutting spending. He passed several of his preferred measures through a Democratic legislature, including cuts to public workers' pensions and a cap on property taxes. Christie's popularity soared after he led New Jersey through Hurricane Sandy, one of the worst disasters in the state's history. The following year, he won a landslide re-election against State Sen. Barbara Buono, 60 percent to 38 percent.
Christie's combative personal style makes him an unusual figure in American politics. He is willing to insult constituents, political rivals, and even the Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner. Because of his popularity as a Republican in a blue state and his relatively moderate image, Christie was once viewed as a top contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. But in 2014, the Bridgegate scandal and related matters derailed his hopes — and though he's still considering a run, he's now viewed as having little chance of winning.
What is Bridgegate?
From September 9 to 13, 2013, traffic through much of the town of Fort Lee, New Jersey slowed to a crawl. Commuters were stuck for hours, buses couldn't get to school on time, and the town's mayor described the situation as total gridlock.
The traffic was caused by the Port Authority's closure of two of the three local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, which extends from Fort Lee to Manhattan. This excellent graphic from the Star Ledger shows what happened:
The suddenness of the lane closures, and the fact that the Port Authority allowed the traffic to persist for several days, raised questions. When reporters first began inquiring about the lane closures, the Port Authority maintained that the lanes were closed for a traffic study. But the Wall Street Journal soon cast doubt on this claim — they quoted sources saying there was no study, and published internal emails where Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye harshly condemned the closures. The story revealed that Foye — appointed to the agency by New York's Governor Cuomo, not Christie — ordered the lanes reopened as soon as he heard about the closures, on the morning of September 13, and that he even feared the closures could have broken state or federal laws.
Soon, a committee of the New Jersey legislature held a hearing on the matter and a top Port Authority official reiterated the traffic study story. And when Governor Christie was asked about the matter, he flatly denied that he or his staffers were involved.
In January 2014, however, emails turned over to the legislature hit the press, and revealed that Christie's deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly ordered the closures. "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Kelly wrote, and the Port Authority's David Wildstein responded, "Got it." In emails and texts, several staffers joked about the traffic jam, mocked Fort Lee's mayor, and expressed concern when reporters started asking questions.
After these revelations, Christie fired Kelly and her superior Bill Stepien. He maintained that he knew nothing of the fired staffers' actions, saying, "I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here."
The Christie administration's eventual internal review of the lane closures put the blame fully on Wildstein and Kelly, saying that Christie had no knowledge of the lane closures. A select committee of New Jersey's legislature investigated whether there's any more to the story, but also found no evidence tying the lane closures to Christie.
On May 1, 2015, Wildstein pled guilty to two counts of conspiracy, and Kelly and another then-Port Authority official, Bill Baroni, were indicted for involvement in the scandal. US Attorney Paul Fishman alleged that the lanes were shut down deliberately to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse Christie's reelection, and that there was never any "traffic study." Wildstein pled guilty on two counts of conspiracy. Kelly and Baroni pled not guilty to multiple conspiracy charges.
Who are the Christie aides involved in Bridgegate?
So far, two former Christie administration aides have been indicted in Bridgegate, and one has pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy.
David Wildstein, then the Port Authority's director of interstate capital projects. Wildstein executed the lane closures, and joked that children stuck in traffic in Fort Lee were the children of Buono voters (referring to Christie's opponent in the election, Barbara Buono). Before his appointment to the Port Authority, Wildstein founded the website Politics NJ, where he wrote blog entries under the pseudonym Wally Edge. He was a year ahead of Christie at Livingston High School, and later served as mayor of Livingston for one term. Wildstein pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy in May 2015.
Bridget Kelly, then Christie's deputy chief of staff focusing on intergovernmental affairs. She wrote the original email to Wildstein that said, "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." Her office was focused on working with local officials. The Christie administration's internal report puts the blame for the scandal on Kelly and Wildstein. Kelly was indicted on multiple counts of conspiracy, but has pleaded not guilty.
Bill Baroni, then the Port Authority's deputy executive director, its top operational official from New Jersey. In texts to his subordinate Wildstein, Baroni mockingly referred to Fort Lee's mayor, Mark Sokolich as Serbia, and would not respond when the mayor asked for help with the traffic. In November 2013, Baroni gave inaccurate testimony to a committee of New Jersey legislators, repeatedly asserting that the lane closures were part of a traffic study. The Christie administration's internal review found no evidence that Baroni knew of the ulterior motive behind the lane closures in advance. Baroni, a former New Jersey state senator, wrote a book called Fat Kid Got Fit: And So Can You! about his struggles with obesity in his younger years. Baroni was indicted on multiple counts of conspiracy, and has pleaded not guilty.
Why would Christie's aides close traffic lanes in Fort Lee?
According to David Wildstein's guilty plea and US Attorney Paul Fishman's allegations, Wildstein, Baroni, and Kelly wanted to punish Fort Lee's mayor, Mark Sokolich, for refusing to endorse Christie's re-election.
It seems odd that Christie's team, then coasting to re-election, would care about an endorsement from the Democratic mayor of New Jersey's 67th largest town. Christie has said he didn't even know Sokolich's name. Nevertheless, Christie has said publicly that he wanted a landslide re-election victory, and he took some unusual actions to increase that margin. (For instance, he scheduled a special Senate election three weeks before his own re-election to avoid sharing the ballot with Senate candidate Cory Booker, who would have increased Democratic turnout, at the cost of $24 million to the state.)
Bridget Kelly, who wrote the "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" email, headed the operation that attempted to win the endorsements of many local Democratic officials for Christie, and the campaign often scheduled events spotlighting endorsements from even small-town Democratic mayors. Also, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop has described how, after he decided not to endorse Christie, several officials from state commissions canceled meetings with him without explanation — so hardball tactics were common.
The Christie administration's internal review found that Kelly and Wildstein executed the lane closures "for some ulterior motive to target Mayor Sokolich," but that the specific motive was "not yet clear." The review points out that Sokolich said he wouldn't be endorsing Christie back in March 2013, and did not cause any apparent resentment among the Christie team. However, the report says that in August 2013, "something happened to change this dynamic dramatically," and Kelly's references to Sokolich in emails suddenly became quite hostile.
How has the Bridgegate controversy affected Christie's presidential hopes?
Before the scandal, Christie was considered by some to be the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, due to his blue-state popularity and his recent landslide re-election. But in early 2015, the establishment Republicans once thought to be gettable for Christie began flocking to other candidates, like Jeb Bush. Even top New Jersey Republicans are endorsing Jeb Bush or remaining neutral for now.
Though polling for the primary doesn't mean too much at this point, the decline in Christie's numbers from late 2013 has been striking. In December of that year, he led the Republican field in national polling — now, he regularly polls in seventh place or worse, trailing contenders like Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Mike Huckabee.
A similar drop is evident in head-to-head polling that pits Christie against Hillary Clinton. Christie led Clinton in several polls conducted in late 2013, but has trailed her in every single one afterward.
What did Hoboken's mayor accuse Christie's administration of?
Shortly after Bridgegate blew up, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer made other allegations of corruption against Christie's administration — allegations that US Attorney Paul Fishman has since examined, but decided not to pursue further.
Zimmer claimed that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno told her that if she didn't move forward with a certain development project, Hoboken would receive less aid for Hurricane Sandy relief. That project was represented by the law firm of David Samson — a close Christie friend who was chairman of the Port Authority.
But Guadagno quickly called Zimmer's allegations "wholly and completely false." The Christie administration's internal review called Zimmer's story a "conspiracy theory," disputed several details of it, and asserted that Guadagno never said anything of the kind to Zimmer.
On May 1, 2015, US Attorney Paul Fishman sent a letter to Guadagno saying his office had investigated the allegations, and had "concluded that no further action is warranted in this matter. Accordingly, the investigation of those allegations has been closed."
What's the controversy over Christie's use of deferred prosecutions?
In a few cases involving large corporations or nonprofits accused of wrongdoing during Christie's tenure as US attorney, Christie agreed not to prosecute as long as the institution accepted a federal monitor, who would try to ensure reform of business practices.
This seems reasonable, but the catch is that these federal monitors were private-sector attorneys who would be paid millions of dollars. And Christie personally chose the monitors, who were often friends and political allies, giving them no-bid contracts.
For example, five hip-and-knee replacement manufacturers agreed to deferred prosecution for giving doctors kickbacks. The monitors Christie chose included former US Attorney General John Ashcroft, his former boss; David Samson, later Christie's chairman of the Port Authority; and David Kelley, a former US attorney who had declined to criminally prosecute Christie's brother Todd for illegal trading a few years earlier. All of these firms made tens of million dollars in fees — Ashcroft's firm in particular was paid at least between $25 million and $52 million for its monitoring work.
As part of its own deferred prosecution agreement in an accounting scandal, the drug company Bristol-Myers-Squibb paid $5 million to endow a professorship in business ethics at Seton Hall University Law School, Christie's alma mater. The Department of Justice soon changed its rules to ban US attorneys from requiring payments to unrelated outside institutions. One former Justice official later told the Washington Post, "It was something you wanted to tamp out before every US attorney in America built a new summer camp. It needed to be nipped in the bud."
Were there other controversies during Chris Christie's tenure as US attorney?
By some accounts, Chris Christie had an exemplary tenure as US attorney for New Jersey. He tried and convicted 132 public officials in corruption cases, including leading Republicans such as Essex County Executive Jim Treffinger, as well as Democratic bosses John Lynch Jr. and Joe Ferriero, and Newark Mayor Sharpe James. His corruption prosecutions were the centerpiece of his first campaign for governor, and won him bipartisan popularity.
But to his critics, Christie was less an anti-corruption crusader than a practitioner of traditional Jersey machine politics. For instance, in 2006, just two months before Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez's tough re-election, it was leaked that Christie's office was investigating a nonprofit connected to the senator. But the investigation never produced anything, leading some to question whether the leaks were intended to help Menendez's Republican challenger. Reportedly, Christie frequently leaked to the website Politics NJ, which was then run anonymously by David Wildstein — the official who later arranged the traffic lane closures in Fort Lee.
Christie's treatment of insurance executive George Norcross, the leading money man for South Jersey Democrats, has also raised eyebrows. Though Norcross was accused of corruption by a local official who recorded some conversations with him, the state attorney general decided not to pursue charges, and referred the case to Christie. In early 2006, with the statute of limitations about to expire, Christie announced he would not pursue charges against Norcross. He said the state had mishandled the investigation and that the existing tapes were not strong enough evidence. The decision set the stage for a Christie-Norcross alliance. Years later, once Christie was governor, Norcross's South Jersey Democrats provided the crucial margin to pass Christie's agenda during several key votes.
However, it is noteworthy that Christie had a perfect record when he brought public corruption charges: 132 convictions and zero acquittals. So this might suggest that he simply chose to prosecute when he had sufficient evidence to do so.
What's the controversy over Todd Christie's Wall Street trading?
Chris Christie's brother Todd is a multimillionaire and a major Republican donor in New Jersey. In 2005, Todd and 19 other traders at his former firm, Spear, Leeds & Kellogg, were charged civilly with illegal trading. Fifteen of those traders were also charged criminally, with defrauding investors — but Todd was not.
The charging decisions were made by the US attorney for Manhattan, David Kelley. Two years later, after Kelley had returned to the private sector, US Attorney Christie gave him a lucrative contract to be a federal monitor for an orthopedics company. So critics have wondered whether Christie was paying Kelley back for letting Todd off the hook.
In the civil settlement that Todd signed in 2008, he admitted to committing hundreds of improper trades. Specifically, when his customers made trade orders, Todd would fill them by moving stock to or from his firm's proprietary account — at prices guaranteed to generate profits for the firm's account, at increased cost to the customers.
Are there other Chris Christie scandals?
Even before the release of the incriminating Bridgegate emails, there were widespread allegations that Christie used the power of his office to bully and retaliate against others in response to even minor slights. For instance, Rutgers political scientist Alan Rosenthal was the tie-breaking vote on New Jersey's redistricting commission. After he voted against Christie's proposed map, Christie cut state funding from Rosenthal's institute with a line-item veto.
As another example, when Christie became embroiled in a public dispute with former Gov. Richard Codey, Codey was informed that the state would no longer provide a state trooper to accompany him to public events. That same day, Codey's cousin and a close friend of his were suddenly fired from their jobs at state agencies.
And Christie's Port Authority has been controversial beyond Bridgegate. In 2011, the Port Authority leaked that it would raise tolls by an incredible amount — but, after Christie criticized the agency, they scaled back their proposal to a smaller increase. Documents show that this seems to have been part of a preplanned scheme to get the public to accept the smaller increase, according to the Bergen Record's reporting. Certain Port Authority deals made with clients of its chairman, David Samson, also led to controversy, and eventually led to Samson's resignation.
On June 23, 2014, the New York Times reported that the Manhattan district attorney was investigating possible securities law violations by Christie's Port Authority appointees. The agency is only supposed to fund projects affecting both New York and New Jersey, but Christie's administration lobbied relentlessly to use agency money to repair a New Jersey bridge, against the advice of agency lawyers.
Additionally, when Christie was vetted as a potential vice-presidential nominee for Mitt Romney in 2012, the vetters were reportedly unsatisfied with his answers to several questions they had posed. Romney's team felt that Christie's "background was littered with potential landmines," according to Time, which played a role in their decision not to choose him as the nominee.