- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2014

The lawyers tapped by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to investigate the George Washington Bridge scandal released their findings Thursday, saying there is no evidence that the Republican governor knew about or had a hand in the lane closures that snarled local traffic for days.

Randy M. Mastro, the lawyer leading the investigation, rolled out the 344-page report at a news conference and said it concluded that Mr. Christie’s then-Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly was the only person in the governor’s inner circle to know about the plan, which he said was driven by David Wildstein, a Port Authority official.

Mr. Wildstein resigned last year, and Ms. Kelly was fired in the wake of the scandal.

“This is a vindication of Gov. Christie in that we found what he has been saying all along is true,” Mr. Mastro, of the law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, told reporters. “He had no prior knowledge of this lane realignment idea and no role whatsoever in the decision or the implementation of it.”

However, Democrats quickly dismissed the report as incomplete and/or accused Mr. Mastro of having conflicts of interest.

Mr. Christie has been operating under a cloud since a cache of emails was released in January that suggested his administration orchestrated the September traffic jams in Fort Lee, causing backups on the heavily traveled George Washington Bridge, in order to exact political payback against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing his re-election bid.

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The new report dismissed the non-endorsement payback theory, saying there is no evidence of that. But investigators were unable to determine the motive.

“Whatever motivated Wildstein and Kelly to act as they did, it was not at the behest of Governor Christie, who knew nothing about it,” the taxpayer-funded report said.

It also said, “The common speculation that this was an act of political retaliation because Mayor Sokolich failed to endorse the Governor for re-election is not established by the evidence that we have seen.”

The report said that in addition to Mr. Wildstein and Ms. Kelly, the lane closures were known to Bill Stepien, the governor’s 2013 campaign manager, and Bill Baroni, who was deputy executive director of the Port Authority. But the report said those two didn’t know the ulterior political motive.

Mr. Christie has apologized and denied knowing about the scheme to close entry lanes to the bridge. He fired Ms. Kelly. He also withdrew his nomination of Mr. Stepien to be chairman of New Jersey’s Republican Party and canceled any business Mr. Stepien had with the Republican Governors Association, of which Mr. Christie is now chairman.

This report is the first of several inquiries into the “bridgegate” saga, which has tarnished Mr. Christie’s national image as he ponders a bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

The Democratic National Committee panned the report, calling it “nothing more than an expensive sham” because Ms. Kelly, Mr. Wildstein and Mr. Stepien, three of the people at the center of the scandal, refused to talk to investigators.

“What we didn’t get for that hefty price tag to New Jersey taxpayers were any interviews with the key figures who executed the plan or any insight into why this happened,” DNC spokesman Mo Elleithee said. “There was no real evidence, no real findings, no real answers, and definitely no exoneration.”

State Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, Democrat and co-chairman of the bipartisan legislative panel probing the incident, has raised similar concerns and questioned the report’s objectivity, based on Mr. Mastro being, like Mr. Christie, a former federal prosecutor and also his having served as chief of staff to former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a staunch Christie supporter.

On Thursday, Mr. Mastro brushed aside the criticism at the news conference, saying he has a track record of being “fiercely independent.”

“It serves no one’s interest — not ours, not the governor’s, not the governor’s office and not the constituency the governor’s office serves, the people of New Jersey — for us to have tried to do anything other than uncover the truth and report the truth,” he said. “Because we are going to be judged on whether we got it right.”

The report, which included interviews with more than 70 witnesses and the review of 250,000 documents, also said that Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s accusations that the Christie administration threatened to withhold funds if she did not back a billion-dollar development project were “unsubstantiated and, in material respects, demonstrably false.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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