It doesn’t take much more than watching Chris Christie berate a teacher to realize that his claim that he “isn’t a bully” is a lie. Bridegate isn’t really about bullying though. It is about a far more disturbing aspect of Christie’s career.
Dating back to his time as the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, Christie has been willing to utilize his public office to reward allies and punish enemies. While Bridgegate has focused attention on his capacity for punishing his enemies, his no-bid contracts allegedly doled out to friends as U.S. Attorney illustrate Christie’s seeming willingness to use public office to reward his friends. These are two sides of the same coin.
As U.S. Attorney, Christie faced scrutiny for a number of allleged ethical lapses. While the stays at plush hotels earned him a spot in an Inspector General’s report, the way he awarded huge no-bid contracts is the most troubling part of his tenure there. What the Romney vetters probably found in 2012, which helped keep him off the ticket, was that Christie had a habit of using controversial deferred prosecution agreements to award friends’ legal shops with millions in business.
In this arrangement, the prosecutor tells a company that they can either agree to a payment decided on by the prosecutor or face prosecution. It’s an offer you can’t refuse, as one congressman said when Christie was forced to testify about his work at the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in 2009. As part of the deferred prosecution agreements, Christie was allowed to select which attorney the company would be forced to pay to oversee the arrangement.
Of the many attorneys that Christie could have selected to oversee these agreements, he evidently turned to friends and those who could help him out. John Ashcroft was Christie’s boss in the Justice Department, and Christie doled out a contract worth up to $52 million to Ashcroft’s nascent company for monitoring a deal with a medical device company. In another case, Christie selected former U.S. prosecutor David Kelley, who had declined to prosecute Christie’s brother, Todd Christie, for financial crimes. In other cases, Christie appointed former colleagues from the Justice Department and Republican fundraisers. Christie even awarded a $10 million contract to his longtime mentor, Herbert Stern, who repaid the favor with hefty donations to Christie’s gubernatorial campaigns. When the contracts were raised as an ethical lapse in his 2009 race for governor, Christie called this a “personal” attack and said he did not act improperly.
Today, there are a lot of lingering questions about who in Christie’s orbit was involved in turning Fort Lee into a parking lot. We know that conservatives will try to defend Christie by blaming this on a few errant aides, but this is a case where the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Christie seems to run his offices like political operations; his friends get rewarded and enemies get punished. It’s no surprise that in such an environment, staffers would feel that they are fulfilling the boss’s wishes in punishing a political enemy, even if it meant shutting down part of a bridge.
Bridegate, like Watergate was for Richard Nixon, is a scandal that will focus on what Christie knew and when he knew it. What is likely to become clear over time is that regardless of whether Christie signed off on this precise operation, he was running an office where there is a pervasive culture of abusing the public trust for political gain: other New Jersey politicians who made the mistake of crossing Christie say they were threatened with retribution.
Nixon never needed help from the Watergate break-in to win the 1972 race, in which he only lost one state. Christie didn’t need an endorsement from the mayor of Fort Lee to win the 2013 race, in which he only lost one county. But when you view your public office as a political post where you should reward friends and punish enemies, it's only a matter of time before such an abuse happens. We may never know what Christie knew and when he knew it but we already know, as Christie has admitted, that he is responsible for this. It's just that he may be more responsible than he wants to admit.
Sam Kleiner is a fellow at the Yale Law Information Society Project.