Ruthless Ambition The Book: Chapter One

Born to Run:

With Help from Bush and Rove

Landing so powerful a job as United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey was not happenstance for Chris Christie. Christie’s hunger for power, whether driven by ego or public service, thrust him into the foray of local politics at an early age. Bruce Springsteen, Christie’s self-proclaimed rock idol, wrote the mega-hit, “Born to Run.” It is his mantra.

After graduating from the University of Delaware and Seton Hall School of Law, Christie hooked up with a small law firm (Dughi, Hewit & Palatucci) in Cranford, New Jersey. Initially employed as a corporate lawyer, Chris Christie’s burning political ambition would soon thrust him onto the public stage. With a powerful supporter in his friend and confidant, Bill Palatucci, the 30-year-old Christie made his entry into the world of politics in New Jersey’s Morris County. It was probably no surprise to anyone who knew him.

According to Peter J. Boyer, writing for Newsweek’s online political website, the Daily Beast, “Christie has never wanted for ambition. He has been running for office since he was a schoolboy, and once, when he was fourteen, he had his mother drop him at the door of a local legislator so he could ask him how to become a politician. ‘I answer the door and there’s this kid,’ recalls former New Jersey governor Tom Kean, who was, at the time, an assemblyman. ‘He said, very respectfully, “Sir, I really want to get into politics.’’’ Kean, who was making his first run for governor, brought the kid to a political meeting that evening and became Christie’s mentor.”

Right out of the gate, Christie aimed high, and despite antagonizing fellow Republicans, in 1993 he launched a primary challenge to the popular State Senator and Majority Leader, John Dorsey. Christie failed to come up with the hundred signatures required to secure a spot on the ballot and embarrassingly never made it to the starting post. Undaunted, the following year, Christie ran for a seat on the Morris County Board of Freeholders. Christie teamed up with another self-styled reformer, Jack O’Keefe, to challenge the Republican incumbents in the June 1994 primary. Salon political writer Steve Kornacki surmised, “To Christie, the main appeal of the job was its launching pad potential.”

Christie launched a good-government campaign promising an ethics code, a ban on gifts, cuts in freeholder salaries and an end to political patronage. “This is one of the major things I’m running on,” he said at the time of his plan to restrict no-bid contracts. “It makes common sense. It’s good government. Let the chips fall where they may, and get the best people at the best price. That’s the freeholders’ job,” the New York Times reported.

But things would turn ugly fast and, in addition to promoting his political platform, Christie waged an aggressive negative campaign against his opponents. “Christie claimed that the GOP incumbents were ‘under investigation’ for their record-keeping of closed sessions – even though they weren’t,” Salon reported. The primary voters bought Christie’s spiel and he secured the nomination, which in the predominantly Republican county was a virtual lock on the general election.

Following the election, Christie’s opponents, Edward Tamm and Cecilia Laureys, hit him with a libel suit for his false assertion that they were under investigation. “The guy just lied!” Tamm told Gabriel Sherman, writing for New Jersey Monthly. “He’ll do anything to get elected. He’ll say anything, do anything.” Christie, years later, consented to give a public apology and the case was settled.

So what about the robust ethics platform and ban on no-bid contracts candidate Christie had vowed? According to David Halbfinger of the New York Times, Christie “showed little persistence in pushing his proposal, which turned out to be any.thing but a ban: It did not apply to law firms, and freeholders would still be free to ignore bidding results and choose whomever they liked.” The Times further reported that, in fact, “during his three-year term, Mr. Christie voted for more than 440 no-bid contracts with appraisers, architects, auditors, engineers,graphic artists, lawyers, even nurses. Some were at rates as low as $50 an hour, but dozens were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Records for many were not available, but 309 contracts for which costs were estimated when they were approved, totaled $10.5 million.

“Mr. Christie denied that he had abandoned the idea of a ban, saying that he ‘fought very hard’ for it but that ‘it was very difficult as one person of seven.’ He said he saw little merit in voting against other no-bid contracts merely to make a point. ‘I was not a guy who was into protest votes and grandstanding,’ he said.”

Though not grandstanding, Christie certainly positioned himself in the cheap seats, accepting a total of $17,000 in campaign contributions from the recipients of more than 50 no-bid contracts.

Emboldened by his successful election to freeholder, Christie wasted little time in trying to further ascend the political ladder. Within months of his swearing in, Christie announced his candidacy for the State Assembly. Challenging well liked incumbent Republicans Anthony Bucco and Michael P. Carroll, Christie went on the attack again. This time, however, the results were disastrous – Republican voters eyed Christie as “a young man in too much of a hurry.” Hanging the defamation suit around his neck, Republicans he had alienated were more than happy to pile on. Christie and his running mate were trounced at the polls by a 2-to-1 margin.

The sting of that beating would linger, and when Christie stood re-election for his Freeholder seat, still beset by the defamation lawsuit and his inability to deliver reform, he was trounced in the primary, finishing dead last. Christie exited from the elective office scene and soon resurrected himself as a registered lobbyist, representing some dozen corporate clients. Christie’s appetite for politics was temporarily satisfied as a supporter and fundraiser of other candidates, mostly Republicans.

The Pioneer

A prominent supporter of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, Christie’s confidant, Bill Palatucci, had developed a friendship with future President George W. Bush Jr. It was through Palatucci that Christie gained entrée into the Bush political world. “In January 1999, Christie boarded a Continental flight in Newark and flew down to Austin with Palatucci and eight top New Jersey Republicans to meet Bush for a private lunch at the Governor’s Mansion with Karl Rove, during which Bush discussed his possible run for president. Christie made a total of three trips to Texas to meet Bush and signed on as the campaign’s New Jersey lawyer,” Gabriel Sherman reported for New Jersey Monthly.

Christie and Palatucci raised approximately $350,000 for Bush’s campaign – qualifying them for membership in the Pioneer Club, reserved for the campaign’s elite fundraisers. He soon developed a relationship with the Bush upper echelon: Karl Rove affectionately called him “Big Boy.” Sherman reported: “After the election, Palatucci recommended Christie for U.S. Attorney and personally sent his resumé with a cover letter to Rove.” Christie, however, has always downplayed his relationships with the Bush inner core.

Suddenly, a lobbyist lawyer, who had never handled criminal law, became the new President’s nominee to become the United State Attorney for the District of New Jersey. The news went over about as well as Christie’s initial foray into state politics. The opposition to Christie’s nomination began to mount. The Association of the Federal Bar of the State of New Jersey adopted a resolution deploring political influence in the selection of a federal prosecutor. The resolution called upon President Bush to make a selection based strictly on merit.

In an editorial captioned, “Try again on U.S. Attorney,” the Star-Ledger savaged Christie’s nomination and the circumstances surrounding it: “Christie is a smart attorney by all accounts and a man of some charm.… But he is not yet qualified for the job of U.S. Attorney. He has never tried a criminal case. He has no substantial experience in federal court. He has never directed a corruption investigation or even participated in one. He is 39, can claim no distinguished academic or legal accomplishment and works primarily as a lobbyist and mediator.”

The pummeling continued. “What Christie brings to the table is excellent political connections. He has energetically raised money for various candidates, including George W. Bush in 2000, and his mentor and law partner is William Palatucci, a friend of the President and a powerful figure in the state GOP. Christie’s history as a partisan rainmaker not only fails to qualify him, it could undermine trust in the office.”

The newspaper editorial was prophetic. “His motives will inevitably be questioned if he indicts Democratic office holders or fails to indict important Republican donors who are under investigation. It is common for U.S. attorneys to have political ties, but Christie’s party links are closer than most.”

At the end of the day, the entire hullabaloo was ignored. The President eventually got his man with the help of New Jersey’s two Democratic U.S. Senators, Robert Torricelli and Jon Corzine, who fully supported Christie’s nomination. After all, President George W. Bush was blazing new trails and Chris Christie was a “Pioneer.” “This is a patronage appointment, plain and simple,” moaned the Star-Ledger.

On January 17, 2002, Chris Christie ushered in a new era for the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey. He was not much for learning the ropes or following the established protocols of his predecessors. Christie implemented a wholesale re.organization of the office. Two previously stand-alone divisions in the office were merged into the Criminal Division, which was then organized into eight units. Unit Chiefs would meet with Christie and his senior staff every ten days to report in and receive policy directives concerning the units they oversaw.

The Special Prosecutions Division would handle political corruption, Christie’s pet peeve. Special Prosecutions would have no mid-level management between its division and the United States Attorney – it would report directly to Christie and his senior staff.

Christie also appointed Camden County Prosecutor Lee A. Solomon as Deputy United States Attorney to handle South Jersey. There had historically been an imbalance of resources covering the lower part of the state, so Solomon was provided with a bump in staffing to operate the South Jersey office.

Each year after the reorganization, Christie brought more federal cases forward than the year before. In the post 9/11 era, Christie also focused on terrorism and brought forth two prominent cases which garnered national attention: the Fort Dix Six and the Hemant Lakhani illegal arms sale sting. Christie’s bread and butter, though, was public corruption. He triumphantly presided over a majority of the 130 consecutive prosecutions of elected or appointed public officials without an acquittal.

Christie also focused his efforts on white-collar crimes; charging firms and institutions as well as the CEOs running them. Among the notable prosecutions were Bristol Myers Squibb for shareholders, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey for illegal business practices, and the artificial knee and hip replacement industry for kickbacks and Medicare fraud. Christie utilized a unique tool to resolve many of the white-collar cases: deferred-prosecution agreements. Through an arrangement with the government, a corporation or individual could avoid prosecution by making reparations to the victim of the alleged crime and agreeing to pay for a monitor appointed by the United States Attorney’s Office to oversee the arrangement. This later became a source of much consternation for Christie; many of those who benefitted from the deferred compensation contracts were friends and future campaign contributors.

To preserve the record of his office, Christie heralded his achievements in a report that he co-authored, which summarized his view of his six-year stint as United States Attorney. Christie stalwarts Ralph Marra, Michele Brown, Jeffrey Chiesa and Charles McKenna signed off on the document, which was a nice promo piece for Christie’s exit from office and entry into the race for Governor of New Jersey.

Ruthless Ambition the Book