Chris Christie's lawyers exonerate Christie in bridge scandal

CBS

Last Updated Mar 27, 2014 8:26 PM EDT

TRENTON, N.J. -- The lawyers hired by Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., to review a traffic-blocking scandal that has engulfed his administration conclude that the governor was not involved in a plot to create gridlock near a major bridge as part of a political retribution scheme

A taxpayer-funded report released Thursday said the September lane closures in Fort Lee, N.J., the town at the base of the heavily traveled George Washington Bridge, were intended to target a local mayor. But there was no evidence found that it was because the mayor wouldn't endorse Christie.

The report released by former federal prosecutor Randy Mastro relies on interviews with Christie and other officials in his administration and 250,000 documents, many of them emails and text messages.

"We found that Gov. Christie had no knowledge beforehand of this George Washington Bridge realignment idea," Mastro said at a news conference.

The report finds that former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official David Wildstein and ex-Christie aide Bridget Kelly were behind the closures. The lawyers who wrote the report also found no evidence that Christie tied Superstorm Sandy aid for Hoboken to support for a private redevelopment project.

Mastro's report comes out ahead of any results from independent investigations by federal prosecutors and a special committee of state lawmakers. Some of the key figures would not cooperate with Mastro's investigation, leading Democrats to question the credibility of the report and its thoroughness.

Mastro told The New York Times this week that Christie, 51, turned over his cellphone and allowed his email accounts to be searched.

The Mastro-led team of lawyers also had access to thousands of documents on government servers and scores of current and former Christie staff, who were interviewed.

The internal report has its fair share of critics because Mastro's firm has ties to Christie (a separate team of lawyers is in charge of responding to subpoenas issued by state legislature and U.S. attorney's office) and because the $650-an-hour investigation was billed to the taxpayers for a total of more than $1 million in legal fees.

State Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a co-chairman of the New Jersey legislative committee investigating the incident, said that the report "can't be a complete investigation" because it does not include interviews with people central to the plot, including Bridget Kelly, the former aide who sent the message, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

"If we don't hear from the person who put the lane closures into motion, Bridget Kelly, who we know sent the email 'Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee' ... if we don't know why she sent that email, if we don't know who gave her the authority to send that email, if we don't know what she thought she may be accomplishing by sending that email, then we can't have a complete picture of what happened here," he said, according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

Defending the report at a news conference Thursday, Mastro said, "We believe we have gotten to the truth or we wouldn't be reporting it."

Like Christie, Mastro is a former federal prosecutor. He is a former chief of staff to New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, another former prosecutor who has staunchly defended Christie on talk shows since the scandal broke open in January. Several people in Christie's circle once worked for Giuliani.

Federal authorities also are investigating the lane closings and related allegations that two members of Christie's Cabinet threatened to withhold Superstorm Sandy recovery aid to a flooded city unless its mayor OK'd a favored redevelopment project.

Five people close to Christie have lost their jobs in the wake of the scandal, including Kelly, whom he fired, and top political adviser Bill Stepien, who managed both of Christie's gubernatorial campaigns and was said to be in line to run any presidential bid.

Emails already released during the investigation show that Stepien was aware of the lane closings while they were happening.

Christie maintains he knew nothing about the plot's planning or execution, and found out about it later.

The scandal has overshadowed the Republican governor and jeopardized any plans to run for president in 2016.

After the report's release, Christie went on the offensive after not holding a press conference since early January. He told ABC News on Thursday the episode has been the most trying of his political career, but he never considered resigning over it and it will not affect any possible plans to run for president.

"I don't intend to make a decision on 2016 until a year from now, but it won't have anything to do with what's happened," he said. "What's happened in the past 10 weeks I think ultimately will make me a better leader, whether it's as governor of New Jersey or in any other job I might take in the public or private sector."

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