Gov. Chris Christie’s ‘Sgt. Schultz defense’ begins to unravel

Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

A few highlights from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's "Bridgegate" statement at his press conference on January 9, 2014. Full transcript:

  • Sgt.SchultzWell, let me tell you, everybody, I was blindsided yesterday morning. I was done with my workout yesterday morning and got a call from my communications director at about 8:50, 8:55, informing me of this story that had just broken on the Bergen Record website. That was the first time I knew about this. That was the first time I had seen any of the documents that were revealed yesterday.
  • [T]the emails that I saw for the first time yesterday morning, when they broken in I believe the Bergen Record story, proved that that was a lie. There's no justification for that behavior. There's no justification for ever lying to a governor or a person in authority in this government. And as a result, I've terminated Bridget's employment immediately this morning.
  • And I'll say one last thing, just so we're really clear. I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or it execution, and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here. Regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover, this was handled in a callous and indifferent way, and it is not the way this administration has conducted itself over the last four years and not the way it will conduct itself over the next four.

This is what is known as the "Sgt. Schultz defense," named after the Hogan's Heroes character Master Sgt. Hans Schultz, who had a recurring line in the show of "I see nothing!" or "I know nothing!"

Gov. Christie's Sgt. Schultz defense began to unravel on Friday when former Port Authority official David Wildstein said there is evidence that the New Jersey governor knew about the lane closings on the George Washington Bridge when they were happening. Christie Linked to Knowledge of Shut Lanes on Bridge:

The former Port Authority official who personally oversaw the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, central to the scandal now swirling around Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, said on Friday that “evidence exists” that the governor knew about the closings when they were happening.

A lawyer for the former official, David Wildstein, wrote a letter describing the move to shut the lanes as “the Christie administration’s order” and said “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” three weeks ago.

The letter, which was sent as part of a dispute over Mr. Wildstein’s legal fees, does not specify what the evidence is. Nonetheless, it marks a striking break with a previous ally. Mr. Wildstein was a high school classmate of Mr. Christie’s who was hired with the governor’s blessing at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the bridge.

Mr. Christie’s office responded late in the day with a statement that backed away somewhat from the governor’s previous assertions that he had not known about the closings in September, which appeared to have been carried out as political retaliation against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, until they were reported in the news media. Instead, it focused on what the letter did not suggest — that Mr. Christie knew of the closings before they occurred.

“Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer confirms what the governor has said all along: He had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened and whatever Mr. Wildstein’s motivations were for closing them to begin with,” the statement said. “As the governor said in a December 13th press conference, he only first learned lanes were closed when it was reported by the press and, as he said in his January 9th press conference, had no indication that this was anything other than a traffic study until he read otherwise the morning of January 8th.

“The governor denies Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer’s other assertions.”

* * *

His lawyer’s letter suggests that Mr. Wildstein was irritated, if not provoked, by Mr. Christie’s dismissiveness.

“Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the governor made about him, and he can prove the inaccuracy of some,” the letter added.

Also on Friday, the lawyer for another aide to Mr. Christie sent a 19-page letter to Reid J. Schar, the special counsel leading the legislative committee’s investigation into the lane closures, asking him to withdraw a subpoena seeking a wide range of documents and other materials from the aide, saying it violated his Fifth Amendment rights.

The aide, Bill Stepien, the governor’s two-time campaign manager and former deputy chief of staff, was among those who lost their jobs or resigned when emails about the closings were made public last month. He had just been retained as a consultant to the Republican Governors Association and was poised to head the state’s Republican Party.

“Bill Stepien has not broken any laws,” the lawyer, Kevin H. Marino, wrote, arguing that the subpoena violates his client’s rights against self-incrimination and unreasonable search and seizure. “He is one of the most well-respected political consultants in America.”

The panel, the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation, released a statement about the letters from the lawyers representing Mr. Stepien and Mr. Wildstein.

“We have read the letter from Mr. Wildstein’s attorney and will consider it as our investigation moves forward,” the statement said. “We just received Mr. Marino’s letter this afternoon. We are reviewing it and considering our legal options with respect to enforcing the subpoena.”

New Jersey's most influential newspaper, The Bergen Record, raised the stakes in "Bridgegate" on Friday with this editorial opinion, Chris Christie should resign if bombshell proves true:

Forget about the White House in 2016. The question now is whether Gov. Chris Christie can survive as governor.

David Wildstein, the man who ordered the George Washington Bridge lane closures, is now pointing the finger directly at Gov. Chris Christie, saying the governor knew about the lane closures in September when they occurred.

That directly contradicts Christie account at his Jan. 13 press conference when he made this statement: "I had no knowledge of this — of the planning, the execution or anything about it… I first found out about it after it was over."

If this charge proves true, then the governor must resign or be impeached. Because that would leave him so drained of credibility that he could not possibly govern effectively. He would owe it to the people of New Jersey to stop the bleeding and quit. And if he should refuse, then the Legislature should open impeachment hearings.

By the governor's own standard, lying is a firing offense. Here's what he said about his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelley, at the same press conference: "There's no justification for ever lying to a governor or a person in authority in this government. As a result, I've terminated Bridget's employment."

One hopes that he would consider lying to the people of New Jersey as an offense of equal magnitude.

So for now, set aside the other scandals. Forget about the charge of extortion in Hoboken. Forget about the growing evidence showing that Christie used Sandy aid as a political slush fund, leaving the real victims short.

The lane closures in Fort Lee not only caused people to miss meetings, and lose out on business deals. It delayed ambulance responses in Fort Lee, and so put people's lives at risk. It was an abuse of government authority that was almost too reckless to believe at first. If the governor did know about it as it occurred, he should have put a stop to it.

The order to close those lanes came from Wildstein, and was triggered by an email from Kelly. That much is not in dispute. And that alone is damning evidence that Christie's administration is dangerously out of control. But if the governor himself was involved, this moves to a new level.

Is Wildstein telling the truth? He faces a criminal investigation himself, so he has a powerful incentive to give prosecutors damning information they can use against a bigger fish. That would give him leverage to negotiate a plea deal. So it is too early to know.

But Wildstein says he has documents that prove the governor was lying at his famous two-hour press conference, when Christie blamed the event on the "stupid" actions of his own staff. And certainly, Wildstein was in a position to know the roots of this conspiracy. A Christie acquaintance since high school, he was appointed to a senior position at the Port Authority, despite having no expertise in transit issues. He was the governor's eyes and ears at the authority.

The governor's office put a statement Friday evening saying that Christie had no "prior knowledge" of the lane closures. But Wildstein's has not made that charge. His claim is that Christie knew of the lane closure while they were underway. The governor's statement is an evasion.

Wildstein's statement means that others who have been implicated in this scandal will probably come forward now as well, hoping to strike deals with prosecutors before their testimony becomes redundant. And all this will happen as the administration answers dozens of subpoenas, and grapples with both criminal and legislative investigations.

When you layer on top of this the criminal investigation in Hoboken, and a separate investigation of Sandy spending by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, it becomes difficult to see how Christie can function. It should be clear even to him now that he should step down as head of the Republican Governors Association.

This is a shocking development. Christie is now damaged goods. If Wildstein's disclosures are as powerful as he claims, the governor must go.

The responses to subpoenas issued to witnesses and organizations in this case from the New Jersey legislature and the U.S. Attorney are due beginning on Monday. The media circus has only just begun.

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