In Defense Of Chris Christie

on January 14, 2014 at 4:18 PM

I almost got fired by Chris Christie. Almost, but not quite.

From June 2004 until November 2005, while working for then-U.S. Attorney Christie in my home state of New Jersey, I maintained a deliciously dishy blog about federal judges called Underneath Their Robes, offering “news, gossip, and colorful commentary about the federal judiciary.” Because I realized that appearing before judges by day and gossiping about them by night could be problematic, I wrote under a pseudonym, pretending to be a woman and calling myself Article III Groupie aka A3G.

In November 2005 — for reasons that I won’t go into here, but that I’m happy to explain at speaking engagements — I revealed myself as A3G in a New Yorker interview with Jeffrey Toobin. The news that one of his prosecutors was writing an irreverent blog about federal judges, including some judges his office appeared before, caused much aggravation for Chris Christie.

The New Yorker piece appeared on a Monday. A few days later, on Friday — after the scandal had made the pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and even the Drudge Report — I got called up to the big man’s office on the seventh floor of 970 Broad Street….

 

Chris Christie could have fired me for my online antics. Even though I hadn’t blogged about any of my cases or revealed any confidences, I had certainly created an appearance of impropriety with my sometimes-snarky blogging about various judges. And I had violated the office’s media policy, by not clearing or even mentioning my New Yorker interview with anyone.

Realizing the trouble I had caused for the office — my story was on the front page, above the fold, for two days in a row in the Bergen Record (the outlet that broke the news of the Bridgegate emails) — I offered my resignation to Christie. Although I wanted to keep my job as an AUSA, I said that if he wanted me to go, I would leave quietly.

(An aside to lawyers who get into trouble and find themselves covered on Above the Law: I know what it feels like to be the scandale du jour. I was on the Drudge Report, for crying out loud. But instead of whining about news outlets covering my misadventures — which were my own fault, of course — I acknowledged my wrongdoing and expressed willingness to accept the consequences.)

Christie responded graciously and with forgiveness, saying that he did not want my resignation. He had mentioned my situation to the Department of Justice powers that be in D.C., who told him that it was his call as to what to do with me, and it was his wish that I remain in the office. He told me that I had been doing very good work as an AUSA and that we should go back to business as usual. He also added that if I later decided to leave the office to pursue a writing career, he would understand, but that kind offer of support was in no way an effort by him to force me out (even though it got spun that way in someoutlets).

(It was understood by both of us that I would not continue my blogging. By this point in time I had effectively shut down the site — I hadn’t deleted the year and a half worth of content, but I placed it behind a password and gave nobody the password — and it was understood that I wouldn’t revive it while in the office, even though it was not explicitly addressed in our conversation.)

I took him up on the offer to stay and returned to being a prosecutor — but after a while, I found I missed the creative outlet of online writing. In early 2006, I left the U.S. Attorney’s Office to take a job blogging about politics for the website Wonkette, where I worked for a few months before leaving to start Above the Law. At the time that I left the office, Christie was exceedingly kind — much kinder than I had any right to expect. He said that if I tried out the writing thing for a few months and decided I didn’t like it, I’d always be welcome back in the U.S.A.O., as long as he was still U.S. Attorney.

Chris Christie’s signature on my seal when I left the U.S. Attorney’s Office (click to enlarge).

I never had to take him up on that offer, but I remain grateful to him to this day. His mentioning the possibility of returning greatly reduced the anxiety that I felt as I left a stable career in the law for a far riskier field and less lucrative position (at least initially). There were other factors that helped me make the jump from law to journalism with increased comfort — such as financial ones, like no educational debt and a few years’ of Wachtell Lipton bonuses still in the bank — but his support provided great reassurance as I headed out the door.

Based on my interactions with and knowledge of Governor Christie, what are my thoughts on Bridgegate? I’m happy to share them, with caveats. First, and quite obviously, I’m not an objective observer — I know him, like him, and feel grateful towards him. Second, perhaps pointing in the opposite direction, we haven’t been in touch in years (not counting Twitter, where we follow each other — see @GovChristie and @DavidLat). Third, although I know a number of people who work with him — his administration is filled with people he brought over from the U.S.A.O., such as chief of staff Kevin O’Dowd, chief counsel Charlie McKenna, deputy chief counsel Paul Matey, press secretary Michael Drewniak — there are many more people I don’t know, including some of the key players in Bridgegate (Bridget Anne Kelly, David Wildstein, Bill Baroni).

So here’s my take. I’ll start with what I posted on Twitter and Facebook during Governor Christie’s big press conference last week:

A nice job by my former boss, Governor Chris Christie — candid and super-apologetic. Impressive that he’s taking questions at this press conference; a lot of politicians mid-scandal will avoid Q&A after prepared statements. But if conflicting information comes out about his role or knowledge, then it’s over.

Along similar lines, here’s a more detailed and eloquent comment that one of my former colleagues in the office, Eric Jaso of Seeger Weiss, posted to Facebook. Eric remains in touch with the governor — he was appointed by Christie to serve as a public member of the New Jersey Urban Enterprise Zone Authority, and he worked on the Christie re-election campaign — so I’m glad to see that we are on the same page:

Having digested the last 48 hours of Chris Christie media, here’s my take as someone who has known the man personally and professionally for over a decade. His press conference was admirable in that he was genuinely contrite, took personal responsibility (something woefully rare in politicians these days), and tellingly did not attempt to leave “wiggle room” in his statements and explanations (e.g., “I have nothing to hide” and “I had no involvement and didn’t know about, condone or order” the bridge lane closure). In doing so, he left himself no “out” whatsoever if information later comes to light that he did in fact know about and/or condone these reprehensible acts. He was also visibly and understandably upset at having his trust violated by his close aides — he does indeed consider those in his leadership circle to be “family.” Knowing him personally, and having seen him in a whole range of circumstances over the years both public and private, I believe he was being open, truthful and sincere….

That being said, it appears obvious that he unfortunately created an atmosphere where some people high up in his administration felt they could engage in ham-handed political retribution against perceived political enemies without regard for the collateral damage to their constituents (regardless of party affiliation) or apparent fear of getting caught, and I suspect he is doing some serious soul searching about that. In sum, the Chris Christie I saw on television yesterday is the one that I know, in his heart a good and honest man, ambitious yes, but singularly devoted to doing what is right and improving this State and our Nation. I, along with many, many others who have served under his leadership, will be heartbroken if it turns out that our faith and trust has been misplaced.

Here are a few more thoughts, largely triggered by the Governor’s press conference (which was impressively long — perhaps too long, but it did send a message of “I have nothing to hide”).

First, as he noted last Thursday, Governor Christie is loyal to his people (if anything, too loyal). As I learned firsthand, he does not fire people lightly. So the fact that he fired Bridget Kelly and forced out campaign manager Bill Stepien showed how angry and betrayed he felt. He does treat the people who work for him like family — he personally attended practically every farewell party for an AUSA while I was in the office — and in return, he expects honesty within the family.

Second, he is not a micromanager — which lends credence to his claim that he had no personal knowledge of the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge being used for political retaliation. He delegates a lot, and he trusts a lot (even if some people, such as Chuck Todd, viewed Christie as having touted himself as hands-on).

I worked in the Appeals Division, and I don’t think Christie knew about any of my cases — or, for that matter, any of the cases handled by the other appellate lawyers. Granted, it was a quiet time for the unit when I was in office; we didn’t have anything like the big affirmative appeals seeking to get Judge Bill Martini kicked off cases, for example. But it is fair to say that, in general, Christie let people do their jobs. He paid attention to some individual Special Prosecution (public corruption) cases, but overall he did not get involved in individual case management.

Third, I respectfully dissent from my colleague Joe Patrice’s take that this is just another example of anoverzealous, power-hungry prosecutor. We argued about this in the office last Thursday, and I agree more with Elie Mystal, who views Bridgegate as less of a “prosecutorial” scandal and more of a “local politics” scandal. Messing with traffic patterns is just the kind of petty, dirty revenge that you see people take out on each other in local politics. The U.S.A.O. alumni currently working for the Governor, at least the ones I know, are not vengeful or super-punitive types; if anything, D.N.J. is known for being less aggressive in charging than the other area U.S. Attorney’s Offices (namely, S.D.N.Y. and E.D.N.Y.). Finally, note that the member of the Christie administration most involved in the scandal, Bridget Anne Kelly, is not a lawyer and did not come over from the U.S. Attorney’s Office; instead, she rose up through (the swamp of) local Jersey politics.

Finally, assuming that nothing else comes out and that he survives this scandal — and early polling, both in New Jersey and nationally, suggests that he will — Chris Christie could actually be strengthened by Bridgegate. If a chastened Christie learns from what he has described as an “humiliating” experience and as a result “nicens” up — i.e., becomes less bullying in his demeanor (he denies being a bully, but there’s no denying that his demeanor sometimes can be bullying) — it could actually make him a softer, warmer, and therefore more appealing candidate. I do agree with Joe’s take that voters generally don’t like angry, finger-wagging prosecutor types. If Bridgegate turns into a “come to Jesus” moment for a humbled Christie, making him less like Rudy Giuliani and more like George W. Bush (in the 2000 election), the timing would be perfect. Even if the 2016 election sometimes feels like it’s just around the corner, it’s still a ways away, and there’s just enough time for Christie 2.0 to roll himself out to the electorate.

And that’s my take on Bridgegate and my former boss, Chris Christie. I offer it somewhat tentatively, with the caveat that it’s based on the information that’s currently available; please don’t view it as a swaggering, confident, “I worked the cones” pronouncement. Revelations and developments may take place that completely upend this assessment — a lesson that Governor Christie learned the hard way.

Originally published on Breaking Gov’s sister site Above the Law.

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