Beginning of the End
Listen, I’m a trained lawyer. You know what that means?
I could makeup an answer at anytime that sounds convincing.
– Governor Chris Christie
Mount Laurel, NJ Town Hall Meeting March 12, 2014
In November of 2013, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was on cloud nine, celebrating the pinnacle of his public service career. He had just been re-elected, trashing his Democratic opponent by more than twenty points. Christie had also been elected chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association. He was the leading contender for the 2016 GOP Presidential nomination, even besting Hillary Clinton in head-to-head polling for the future contest. Christie’s favorability ratings were off the charts. Time magazine hailed and featured Christie as the savior of the Republican Party. His celebrity was in demand – appearances on David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, Jay Leno, and Barbara Walters’ 10 Most Fascinating People show began to stack up. By all accounts, it looked like Governor Chris Christie was well on the way to becoming the 45th President of the United States.
Then, out of the blue, fate (or karma) stepped in as it so often does: unexpectedly. In an unimaginable reversal of fortune, Governor Christie’s past began to catch up with him. Truth came a-knocking at his door.
During Christie’s campaign for governor, in order to secure as many Democratic defections for endorsements as possible, Christie and his campaign team might have stretched things a bit too far in the hotly contested and coveted Bergen County campaign. Surprisingly, the Mayor of the obscure town of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, would draw the wrath of the political gods when he failed to capitulate and endorse Christie’s re-election bid. Fort Lee sits at the west end of the George Washington Bridge and is impacted by the ebbs and flows of traffic traversing the bridge.
David Wildstein, Christie supporter and high school classmate of the Governor, a former political blogger and onetime Republican mayor of Livingston, New Jersey, was a Port Authority official appointed at the behest of Governor Christie. Wildstein got the grand idea to close the Fort Lee local access traffic lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge for four days in September 2013. The lane closures happened to coincide with the opening of Fort Lee’s school year and just weeks after Mayor Sokolich declined to support Christie in the upcoming November election. Traffic jams abounded in the town, tying up everything from emergency response vehicles to school buses during rush hours.
The Port Authority’s Executive Director, Patrick Foye, was kept in the dark about the lane shutdown. According to the Huffington Post, “other Port Authority officials said Wildstein directed them not to tell Foye about the bridge closures.” When Foye finally did find out, he blew his stack, declaring that, “procedures were violated and residents’ safety was put at risk.” He further termed the lane closings as “dangerous” and “illegal.”
Wildstein, and the man who recommended him, another Christie stalwart, Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, alibied that the lane closures were the result of a traffic study. Christie publically supported them, arguing that he didn’t think it was fair that tiny Fort Lee had so many access lanes to the bridge. However, a New Jersey State legislative investigative committee hearing could not get any Port Authority personnel to produce a scintilla of evidence supporting the excuse of a “traffic study.” Mayor Sokolich cut to the chase and alleged the actions were punitive for his failure to support Christie’s re-election. The mayor would later walk back somewhat from the charge, but the accusation had been voiced. State Senator Loretta Weinberg, who represents the district, likewise suspected the closings were politically motivated and told the Star-Ledger that, “Wildstein has abused the agency’s authority for the sake of perpetuating the governor’s power.”
Wildstein abruptly exited the scene, announcing that because of the distraction created by the issue, he was stepping down from his position at the Port Authority. Baroni shortly followed suit. Christie said he never bothered to question Baroni or Wildstein as to why they were making so sudden a departure; perhap she already knew the answer. Christie called a press conference in order to feign leadership and keep an arms-distance from the matter. He later admitted to gathering certain select senior office staff together, just prior to his press conference, for the purpose of gauging their involvement in the lane closings. He said he gave them an hour to fess up to any involvement in the fiasco. No one came clean.
Confronting the badgering and accusations of reporters, Christie sarcastically commented, “I was working the cones,” that were used to shutoff the traffic lanes. He scoffed at and belittled the efforts of those legislators and press investigating and reporting about the looming scandal. He insisted that neither he nor anyone on his staff had any involvement whatsoever in ordering the lane closures. He blamed the hullabaloo surrounding the controversy on partisan Democrats whom he accused of exploiting the issue to make him look bad. Christie continued to stick with the traffic study alibi that Baroni and Wildstein had floated.
The crisis was cloaked in the antics and corrupt underhandedness that seem to typify Christie’s career. Yet, this fiasco, more than any other, appeared to catch traction and show signs of sticking to the otherwise teflon politico. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow categorized the event as a “rejected plot line from the Sopranos.” Only time and the suspect tenacity of a usually lackluster media would tell. The ramifications could prove to be lethal for Christie’s national intentions, as New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski put it: “If he couldn’t be trusted to run a bridge, how can he be trusted to run the country?”
Things would suddenly take the proverbial turn for the worse as the New Year of 2014 opened. The release of e-mails between senior staff in the Governor’s office and Christie appointees at the Port Authority revealed the worst side of political vengeance and corruption in government. Following an August day when Christie excoriated Democrats in the legislature, including Senator Loretta Weinberg, for their failure to support his Supreme Court nominations (Christie labeled them “animals”), an e-mail from Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, gave direction to David Wildstein at the Port Authority: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Ironically, the town lies in Weinberg’s legislative district.
“Got it,” Wildstein responded, as if he knew what was meant by Kelly’s cryptic message. A month later, Wildstein had all the pieces in place and he masterfully created gridlock in Fort Lee by ordering the closing of the traffic lanes leading to the bridge. The result: kids stranded in buses for hours on the first days of school and ambulances and emergency service vehicles delayed while trying to respond to calls. Fort Lee EMS workers documented the death of a 91-year-old woman from cardiac arrest. The paramedics could not reach her in time because of the traffic tie-ups.
As the massive traffic jams froze the streets of Fort Lee, Bridget Anne Kelly exchanged e-mails with Wildstein. “Is it wrong that I’m smiling?” she asked.
“No,” Wildstein responded.
When Kelly expressed sympathy, “I feel badly about the kids,” Wildstein retorted, “They are the children of Buono voters,” referring to Christie’s opponent in the gubernatorial election. Later, once the emails were revealed, Christie fired Kelly: she had become another in a long line of scapegoats.
In a different e-mail exchange, Christie’s two-time campaign manager, Bill Stepien, who had miraculously wound up on the State payroll in the Governor’s office, referred to the protesting Fort Lee mayor as an “idiot.” The remark and his involvement would cost Stepien a recent appointment as chairman of the New Jersey State Republican Party and a campaign position with the Republican Governor’s Association. Christie sacked him from both positions – serving up more red meat to his critics.
After hiding behind closed doors for 24 hours, Christie and his team put together a statement. “I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge,” Christie alibied. Translation: he was the victim of his staff.
At a follow-up press conference, Christie was even more vociferous. He transitioned into Ralph Kramden mode. Not the tough guy, braggadocio Kramden who vows to send his wife Alice to the moon on occasion, but the humble, puppy-dog Kramden with the sad face and sullen eyes, hamming it up for sympathy after one of his schemes falls apart. Christie pleaded for forgiveness from New Jerseyans. This was the same puppy-dog face he had put on when he claimed that he had made an honest mistake in breaking the law three times by failing to list his loan to Michele Brown, another U.S. Attorney who had worked under him, on various government disclosure forms while he was running for governor in 2009.
Christie said he was “humiliated” and that he had been “blindsided.” As the Star-Ledger’s Ted Sherman reported, “he humbly took responsibility for allowing the George Washington Bridge scandal to happen under his watch. But at the same time, he took none of the blame, as he worked to tamp down the flames of controversy that threaten to consume his administration and his national political ambitions.” Christie then lashed out at Kelly, his Deputy who allegedly gave the lane closure orders all by herself. He called her a “liar.”
Christie insisted that he, incredibly, knew nothing, nor bothered to learn anything more, even as the nightmare traffic jams continued to affect Fort Lee. “I had no knowledge of this – of the planning, the execution or anything about it – and that I first found out about it after it was over,” Christie assured the public. In response to questions about his longstanding relationship with David Wild-stein, Christie paralleled the denial of St. Peter: “We didn’t travel in the same circles in high school. You know, I was the class president and athlete. I don’t know what David was doing during that period of time.” Then Christie quickly morphed into the role of Judas and publically announced the political executions of Kelly and Stepien.
Always demonstrating a flair for drama, Christie left the press conference and headed to Fort Lee, New Jersey. There he personally apologized to the mayor in a closed-door meeting. He extended his condolences to the residents of Fort Lee and others who had been victims of his administration’s orchestrated traffic jam. While Christie was on his way to offer his apology to Fort Lee, David Wildstein was being called to testify before the state legislative committee investigating the matter. Wildstein invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify and incriminate himself. His lawyer followed with a request for immunity so Wildstein could tell the world what he knew.
Days after Christie’s press conference, other subpoenaed e-mails released to the public revealed that when other sane Port Authority officials tried to override the lane closures, Christie’s appointees at the agency resisted, using the clout of Christie’s appointee on the Port Authority’s Board, Chairman David Samson, to run interference. Wildstein e-mailed Kelly and informed the Governor’s Office that, “The New York side gave Fort Lee back all three lanes this morning. We are appropriately going nuts. Samson helping us to retaliate.”
The e-mails incriminated more of Christie’s staff and appointees at the Port Authority in the brazen attempts to fight off other Port Authority brass and keep traffic clogged in Fort Lee. At the same time, they expressed concerns about having a cover story to feed to the press. Others in the Governor’s office would pitch in to help out, but, despite bumping into Christie every day, they expected the public to believe that no one bothered to inform the Governor. Christie’s alibi stretches credulity to the breaking point. Not one of his henchmen admitted to knowing why the action was ordered or by whom, nor did they ever endeavor to find out.
This was fast becoming a no-win situation. Even if he was telling the truth, Christie had obviously created a culture within his administration in which many of his key staff and appointees felt free to abuse power.
The repercussions of the latest e-mail revelations triggered the New Jersey legislature to cast a wider net and rain subpoenas down on Trenton, serving practically all of Christie’s key inner circle and demanding even more documents, e-mails and text messages. The legislative committee ramped up and hired the former United States Attorney from Illinois, Reid Schar, who had successfully prosecuted that state’s former governor, Rod Blagojevich.
The United States Attorney’s Office, where other Christie allies and some of his fixers were still employed, also launched an inquiry into the matter. Some Republican legislators and Christie allies suggested that the New Jersey legislature should shut down their investigation and allow the United States Attorney’s Office to run the show. That wasn’t about to happen. Not to be outdone, Christie contracted a law firm to conduct an internal investigation of the matter; a smart move, in case he needed to contradict whatever the legislature or United States Attorney’s Office might find.
Within days of the Christie ship of state starting to list, other torpedoes struck below the waterline. In a blockbuster allegation, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer accused the Christie administration of shaking her down to help a developer in exchange for the release of Superstorm Sandy relief funds to help her city. The development, located within three blocks of a nineteen-block redevelopment zone in Hoboken, was owned by the Rockefeller Group of New York. Coincidentally, the Rockefeller Group was being represented by Wolff & Samson, the law firm of Port Authority Chairman David Samson, a close Christie confidant. The Rockefeller Group was also a significant campaign contributor to the Governor.
Offering to help the City of Hoboken, the ex-New Jersey DCA Commissioner, Lori Grifa, leaned on the Port Authority and secured a $75,000 grant for the Hoboken Planning Board that would pay for a Port Authority redevelopment study of the area slated for rebuilding. The grant was secured with the assistance of Christie’s appointee to the Port Authority, Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni – the same Bill Baroni who was entangled in the Bridgegate scandal. Lo and behold, the Port Authority study determined that only three blocks of the nineteen-block parcel were worthy of development: the three blocks owned by – surprise! – the Rockefeller Group. How convenient.
It seemed that Chairman Samson was very busy in his role at the Port Authority. The Bergen Record reported that Samson was also influential in supporting and voting to approve some $256M for the Port Authority’s PATH train facility in Harrison, New Jersey. This just happened to occur within months of another client of Samson’s law firm proposing to convert a warehouse near the PATH facility into a luxury-housing complex. Location and timing (and clout) are everything.
Back in Hoboken, the city’s Planning Board rejected the Port Authority study. Suddenly, something prompted Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno to visit the mile-square city to assess Hoboken’s ongoing recovery following Superstorm Sandy. During Guadagno’s visit, she pulled the mayor aside, and according to Mayor Zimmer, “Guadagno said … essentially, ‘you’ve got to move forward with the Rockefeller project, this project is really important to the governor.’ And she had been with him on Friday night and this was a direct message from the Governor. ‘The word is that you are against it and you need to move forward or we are not going to be able to help you. I know it’s not right. These things should not be connected. But they are. If you tell anyone I said it, I will deny it.’” Zimmer told several of her Hoboken staff about the encounter and recorded the incident in her diary.
Mayor Zimmer further alleged that Lori Grifa, who had since left the DCA to work as a lobbyist for the Wolff & Samson law firm, hounded various Hoboken city officials to push the Rockefeller Group’s development project forward. Months later, Zimmer was a panelist on a television program regarding Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts. Also on the panel was Grifa’s replacement, the current New Jersey DCA Commissioner, Richard Constable III. According to Zimmer’s diary, “We are mic’d up with other panelists all around us, and probably the sound team is listening, and he says ‘I hear you’re against the Rockefeller project … If you move that forward, the money would start flowing to you’.”
Guadagno, Constable, and others of Christie’s minions vociferously denied Zimmer’s accusations. The Christie attack machine was in full mode. They even produced flattering comments from Mayor Zimmer praising Christie’s policy initiatives from time to time. Although she was a Democrat, Zimmer liked the reforms Christie wanted to implement and she made no bones about it. She told the Star-Ledger that she was “emotional” about Christie. “I thought he was honest. I thought he was moral. I thought he was something very different,” Zimmer wrote in her journal. “This week I find out he’s cut from the same corrupt cloth that I have been fighting for the last four years.”
Within days of Zimmer’s revelation, the United States Attorney’s Office and the FBI were interviewing witnesses who corroborated the Mayor’s allegations. They seized her diary. Several days later, a federal grand jury subpoenaed the New Jersey GOP and Christie’s campaign for documents relative to the lane shutdowns on the George Washington Bridge. Things were either worsening for Christie, or his friends in the United States Attorney’s Office were taking care of business for him. Only time would tell. While all of it played out, there were still more than twenty-thousand New Jerseyan’s who remained displaced as a result of Sandy, and were counting on the same type of relief funds as Mayor Zimmer to help restore their lives.
Unbelievably, at the very same time, Lieutenant Governor Guadagno was at the center of another political and potentially criminal scandal still evolving as word of the Hoboken scandal broke. A veteran prosecutor, ousted by Governor Christie’s administration, accused the Governor’s regime of corruption in court documents.
Bennett A. Barlyn, an ex-Assistant Prosecutor in the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office, was working an ironclad criminal case against the Hunterdon County Sheriff and two of her deputies in 2010.
The sheriff, Deborah Trout, is an acquaintance of Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno and played an active role in Christie’s gubernatorial campaign in 2009, the court records show. Trout sent some of her Sheriff’s Office deputies to assist the campaign. Guadagno personally thanked her in an e-mail. A grand jury returned a 43-count indictment in the matter. The indictment charged that Trout hired deputies without conducting background checks – a criminal offense in New Jersey. The indictment further charged that Trout’s office also gave a fake police ID to a pharmaceutical executive who just happened to donate thousands of dollars to Christie’s campaign. Michael Russo, the indicted undersheriff in the case, assured one of his aides at the time, “Governor Christie will have this whole thing thrown out.”
Within days of the indictments, the state Attorney General’s Office, under the stewardship of Paula Dow, swooped in, quashed the indictment, fired Barlyn for voicing objections, and threatened another prosecutor. The documents were cleared out of the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office and whisked off to the State Capitol in Trenton. Such action is almost unprecedented in New Jersey courts. Administration officials, including Attorney General Dow, have categorically denied the complaints about political retribution that were filed in the court documents. The matter is still pending.
In the meantime, Christie’s presidential aspirations were taking a hit. His favorability ratings were dropping faster than the subpoenas from the agencies investigating him. He was in a virtual free-fall from his once lofty position as the leading 2016 GOP presidential prospect. He had collapsed to third place. Christie also now trailed Hillary Clinton in presidential polling by double digits.
As Super Bowl XLVIII weekend arrived in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, Christie was about to suffer another blow. He was blindsided on his way to a celebrity bash honoring Howard Stern’s 60th birthday. David Wildstein’s lawyer, Alan L. Zegas, made public a scathing letter that he had written to the Port Authority, attempting to secure fees for his client’s defense as a former Port Authority employee.
The letter pulled no punches, and in a paragraph that landed like an uppercut to the jaw, Zegas dropped a bomb. “It has come to light that a person within the Christie administration communicated the Christie administration’s order that certain lanes on the George Washington Bridge were to be closed, and evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the Governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference,” he wrote. Christie, who had terminated Bridget Anne Kelly for lying to him, had apparently lied to the public.
Of course, Christie countered with another denial, but it seemed no one was buying his excuses anymore. Christie’s tacticians resorted to the typical response reserved for anyone who dared challenge him – the Governor’s wordsmiths pummeled Wildstein from pillar to post, assaulting his character as far back as middle school. They claimed a teacher scolded him for deceptive behavior. Oh, heavens!
The attack on Wildstein seemed petty and desperate. This routine of the Governor’s henchmen had become transparent and worn out. Just weeks earlier, when Wildstein resigned from the Port Authority, the Governor’s office thanked Wildstein for his “dedication” and praised him as a “tireless advocate.” The Star-Ledger Editorial Board called for Christie’s resignation, or impeachment proceedings, if the Zegas allegation could be confirmed. So did influential State Senator Raymond Lesniak. Christie was taking on too much water. As he meandered from one Super Bowl event to the other, Christie was suddenly greeted by sounds he was unaccustomed to: jeers and booing from the public.
As more information surrounding the bridge conspiracy leaked out, Christie began massaging his original alibi. A few days following the release of Attorney Alan Zegas’ letter, Christie took the opportunity to respond on his radio program, speaking in Rubik’s Cube. “Christie said it’s conceivable that someone might have mentioned gridlock in the city of Fort Lee, or that he might have read about it. But he said he didn’t realize it was a serious issue worthy of investigation until the concerns of the Port Authority’s executive director, Patrick Foye were reported publically in the press,” NBC News reported. Christie’s latest story now put his actions in sync with the statements in the Zegas letter that he had taken exception to just days earlier. Christie was all over the board, implementing a strategy of rolling disclosure, offering excuses to cover anything that his former staffers would charge against him.
Christie stayed on schedule with all of his previously lined-up speaking engagements around the country: opportunities for him to advance his presidential aspirations. Texas, Illinois, D.C., and Georgia were all earmarked as destinations for Christie to sell his brand. Christie was still digging in– counting on his celebrity and acerbic wit to turn the tide for him, as it had so many other times in the past.
To me, the current scandals evolving around Christie are déjà vu. I lived it all just a few years ago. Life as I knew it was shut down as easily as a lane of traffic on the George Washington Bridge. I too was a victim of Christie’s corrupt conduct, and I still have the scars to prove it.
Day of Infamy
In the dawn of July 23, 2009, I awoke to a beautiful summer morn.ing at the Jersey Shore. Sea-scented air drifted through my open bedroom window, reminding me that I was still on vacation at my family’s summer home in Belmar, far from my Journal Square con.dominium in the gritty urban confines of Jersey City. Belmar melded together perfectly as a gorgeous residential ocean front community and vacation resort. I was staying on the lower floor of the split-level home, which was always my favorite place to get away from it all.
I hit the kitchen for a cup of coffee, and then began to prepare for an early morning radio interview that had been arranged earlier in the week. I was to be the guest of Jim Gearhart on radio station NJ 101.5 by telephone. As a former New Jersey state legislator, I was going to discuss issues of importance in November’s upcoming gubernatorial election between incumbent Governor Jon Corzine and his challenger, former United States Attorney Chris Christie.
The dawn sunbeams streamed through the windows of the house, slowly and steadily brightening the interior of the home. Little did I know as I began scanning my notes that, in a matter of minutes, I would be plunged into a waking nightmare.
At about 6:45 am, I received a call from someone claiming to be an FBI agent, who said he was stationed outside my Jersey City home. He had been ringing the doorbell of my apartment condominium unit to no avail, not knowing that I was at my family’s summer home at the Jersey Shore. In disbelief, I listened to the agent telling me that there was a warrant out for my arrest. I honestly thought someone was pulling a prank on me. He advised me to switch on the news and call him back. I flicked on the bedroom television, which blared out extensive coverage of an FBI sting just going down. I realized that this was no joke, and my heart leapt into my throat. When I managed to swallow, I muttered something along the lines that I was prepared to drive up to Jersey City to surrender to them. I had no clue what it was all about: only my certainty that it was a mistake. It would take three years, and all I had to prove that I was right.
I hardly remember the drive to Jersey City. One moment I was in my family’s summer home at Belmar and the next I was pulling into the parking garage of my condominium building in Jersey City. I exited the car and took the elevator up to my unit. Disbelief still hung over my every thought.
The agents were waiting at the building’s front desk, and I called down to have them sent up. When they arrived, they politely explained they were there to arrest me for extortion. I listened … still in disbelief. They asked if they could search for weapons and I obliged their request (no, no guns). As we stood huddled around my kitchen island, one of the agents plugged in a personal computer and plopped in a disc. They played a 30-second snippet of a video showing my brother taking a FedEx envelope from someone later alleged to be a co-conspirator. I still had no clue what this was all about.
They asked me if I knew a David Esenbach. Not that I could re.call. I would learn later on that I did. Esenbach had been described to me as a developer whom one of the sting’s co-conspirators, Ed Cheatam, had introduced me to through my brother. Earlier in the year, I had been a candidate in the 2009 Jersey City mayoral election. Cheatam claimed that he worked for Esenbach, whom he said wanted to contribute to my mayoral campaign. The reason nothing registered was that I had never taken any contributions from Esenbach and had instructed my brother not to either. I thought he was a wise ass and wanted nothing to do with him. Esenbach vanished from my mind until an infamous day in late July.
Then the agents went through the typical routine before arrest.ing any political figure – asking if I had information on someone else that I might want to cough up in return for some slack: the law enforcement equivalent of frequent flyer miles. I had nothing to offer, and I was promptly read my rights, formally arrested, and allowed to call a lawyer. I called my friend since high school, George Tate, but his firm had already been contracted to defend my brother. George recommended an attorney I had never heard of, John Lynch. Still in shock and unable to think for myself, I asked George if he would make the arrangements. George said he would oblige my request.
The agents told me what I could expect to be going through the rest of the day, and I adjusted my mindset accordingly. We exited my condominium, hit the elevator, and walked out the garage entrance of the building to the car waiting to transport me. I was cuffed, eased into the vehicle, and driven to the FBI building in Newark. From that point on, all color and scent left my world. I can only recall the remainder of the events of that day in the grainy black and white of an old film noir.
Arriving at the FBI building and exiting the car we had to run a gauntlet of media that had been tipped off about the sting. Some.one had alerted them to where the best vantage point would be to get shots of the FBI’s haul. In the building’s basement there was an assortment of other defendants who had been rounded up in the sting. Because I was a late arrival, I was in the last group. Here, everyone was fingerprinted, photographed, and debriefed of personal vital information. The FBI had provided a breakfast buffet for their catch: juice, coffee, and bagels. No one seemed to have an appetite for any of it. Tagging along with me was Mayor Anthony Suarez of Ridgefield, New Jersey. He would later be acquitted of all charges.
When processing was finished, everyone was once more handcuffed and given another complementary piece of Department of Justice jewelry: leg irons. We were then led again through the gauntlet of media outside the building and loaded onto prison buses for a trip to the Federal Courthouse in New.ark. Here, the formality of having the charges read and bail set was performed. However, this would not happen until the end of the day. We were unaware that the United States Attorney’s Office had other ideas – they were milking the media attention to the nth degree and had press conferences and briefings planned throughout the day.
While waiting for my face time with a District Court judge, I was thrust into a holding cell with a potpourri of other defendants. I did not know it at the time, but they had also rounded up a group of alleged money launderers, mostly rabbis, who were part of a second wave of the sting. The news that night was also reporting that someone was being charged with harvesting human body parts. I am glad I did not know that at the time. In that holding cell, amidst the shock and mass confusion, everyone tried to make some sense of what was happening. Nobody could.
The long wait in the holding cells finally ended with an appearance before the federal magistrate, which was again convenient.ly scheduled right before the evening news broadcasts. The U.S. Marshalls hauled the lot of us, still in handcuffs and leg irons, into a courtroom jammed with media and family members of some of the defendants. To accommodate the overflow, two courtroom sessions were necessary. Lawyers crowded around a much too small defense table and announced their name and who they were representing for the court record. It was then that I first laid eyes on attorney John Lynch.
After the court hearing in which the terms for bail were settled, we went back to the holding cell where our shackles were re.moved. We were then escorted downstairs to the Office of Pretrial Intervention, assigned an officer we would be reporting to twice monthly until trial. After a short debriefing there, we were free to go home. The hallways were filled with lingering defendants, still in a daze, chatting with their attorneys. John Lynch grabbed me and drove me back to my apartment in Jersey City. He handed me a copy of my arrest warrant, but I was still too shaken up to even attempt to read it. I kept searching my mind for what this was all about and what I possibly could have done wrong. I was completely perplexed – why was I arrested?
Later that night I drove back down to the Jersey Shore to see my 90-year-old mother. She had been watching the events of the day as they were reported on television. I did not know if I would be able to find the words … but I didn’t need to, she had them all. “Son, I have known you your whole life. I know that you would not take a bribe from anyone.” I guess Mom thought that I could use a lift. “Please … tell me you had nothing to do with the body parts,” she deadpanned.
We laughed. It was the only smile I managed that day.
The travesty that was about to unfold would cost me my home, my reputation, and my business. My defense would deplete me of my entire lifesavings. On top of that, years later, Superstorm Sandy would take its toll, wrecking my family’s Jersey Shore home where I had relocated. I temporarily moved into a spare bedroom in the upper floor of my brother’s Belmar home a few blocks away. It would be months before I could move back in.
By the time I finally finished this book, I was practically destitute. The truth would eventually prevail, and I would be completely exonerated, but even truth extracts a great cost from us at times. When I am called to meet my maker, my tombstone should record two dates of death, with July 23, 2009 as the first. You are about to read the autopsy report.
The colors and scents of life would eventually come back, given rebirth by the indomitable spirit residing in us all – the will to survive and right ourselves from wrong. Today, against all odds, I am still trying to resurrect the semblance of a life from scratch. When I do, perhaps then I will feel the satisfaction that justice has prevailed. For now, sporadic substitute teaching is barely paying the bills.
Everything that marked what was once a lauded and exemplary life as a public servant meant nothing. People tend to believe the worst about each other, especially politicians, and I am the living proof. I wear that false arrest stigma every day. All the good deeds of my life are meaningless to many. Even some literary agents and publishing houses shunned me.
As a devout Roman Catholic, my strong faith in God has helped to carry the day for me. His blessings and handiwork are everywhere. When we were in search of case laws to support a point in our argument, they miraculously appeared. Helpful documents would arrive on my doorstep from anonymous senders. Every possible break that we needed, we got. You do not prevail as solidly as we did against the federal government without divine help. God never let us down; he answered every prayer. Moreover, anyone who helped us along the way became the benefactors of his blessings as well.
I was also blessed to make the acquaintance of John David Lynch. He appeared out of nowhere, like a guardian angel. He was the first thing that went right for me on that infamous July 23, 2009. John Lynch is not a make-a-quick-buck lawyer who would recommend a client plead out, guilty or not, to a federal prosecution. Not that you can really blame the pleading-heart attorneys. The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey had a record of 130 consecutive successful prosecutions in political corruption cases. John’s grit was probably acquired from the neighborhood where he was born – New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen.
When John Lynch saw the depth of the depravity that engulfed the government’s investigation and prosecution of the Bid Rig III cases, he did not lie down. We became a great team. He lawyered and I researched. From the day of my arrest forward, I lived and breathed the Bid Rig III investigation and each of its prosecutions. I had always been an avid investigator and a stickler for detail, whether while serving as an environmental and health professional or a state legislator. My longstanding determination to get to the heart of any matter served me well in assisting my defense. I read and researched every government guideline regulating each prosecutor and government agent that was working the cases. I read every case document, each minuscule piece of paper in the more than 14 boxes of discovery containing hundreds of thousands of pages. In the end, I knew the investigation better then the government did.
More importantly, by running a parallel timeline depicted in the government documents alongside the news reports of events leading up to and culminating in the 2009 New Jersey gubernatorial election, I would discover dark and dirty secrets.
It appeared to me that the evidence was conclusive that federal prosecutors, including former United States Attorney Chris Christie, broke the law and used their offices to personally and politically profit themselves, obstruct justice, and engage in what appeared to be a government orchestrated coup to disrupt the 2009 New Jersey gubernatorial election.
Contriving a sting operation with a controversial confidential in.formant, the prosecutors used their public offices to knock out the Democratic political stronghold of Hudson County just prior to the 2009 New Jersey gubernatorial election. In so doing, as would be verified by polling and election results, the prosecutors strategically helped to tilt the election in Christie’s favor.
The false charges lodged against me were subsequently dismissed by two District Court decisions and an Appellate Court decision in a case that prosecutor’s intentionally dragged out until February of 2012. The Courts called my prosecution “legal alchemy.” The initial decision snapped the prosecutors’ record 130 consecutive successful prosecutions streak. The shockwave sent other fraudulent indictments from the sting into a tailspin as the underhanded tactics of prosecutors began to be exposed. But their dirty deeds did not end there.
Little did I know it at the time, but Bid Rig III was merely one spoke in a wheel of what appeared to be contemplated and corrupt conduct on the part of numerous public officials, including Chris Christie, for the purpose of advancing a political agenda. The other spokes of the crooked Christie wheel mirror the latter day scandals that everyone seems to know about. The targeting of innocent individuals, who were regarded as mere props in his escapades, without any value other than to serve the advancing political agenda, seems to be a familiar reappearing pattern in every one of Christie’s abuses.
It appears Christie’s agenda began long before Bid Rig III, its targets, and an infamous confidential informant, Solomon Dwek. This agenda was given birth through an elected seat on the Morris County, New Jersey Freeholder Board, christened by a prestigious Department of Justice appointment, and confirmed by his election to the governor’s seat. The next stop, Christie hoped, was the White House.
In order to present the facts without prejudice, the events de.picted are gleaned from documents that Christie’s office and his collaborators once tried to keep hidden, the words of Christie and other public officials, court documents, government reports and the impressions of journalists reporting the events as they occurred.