TRENTON, N.J. — Investigations led by federal authorities and New Jersey legislators are continuing to delve into a traffic-blocking operation near a major bridge, even as Gov. Chris Christie's own probe has concluded that he was not involved in the plot.
Politically connected New York lawyer Randy Mastro released a report exonerating Christie on Thursday, 10 weeks after the Republican governor's office commissioned his firm to conduct an internal review. The two other investigations are looming.
The U.S. attorney's office launched a criminal investigation into the scheme, which created gridlock in Fort Lee, the town at the base of the George Washington Bridge, to retaliate against its Democratic mayor for an unknown transgression. A parallel investigation by a state legislative panel is trying to find out how high up Christie's chain of command the order to shut traffic lanes went, and why. Federal investigators are also looking into an allegation that Christie cabinet members threatened to withhold Superstorm Sandy recovery funds from a flooded city if the mayor did not approve a favored redevelopment project.
Mastro's taxpayer-funded report concluded "there is not a shred of evidence" the governor knew what aides Bridget Kelly in the governor's office and David Wildstein at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that runs the bridge, were plotting. The report pins blame for the plot on Kelly and Wildstein — as Christie had done previously — and says a political motive is apparent. The report also concluded that allegations by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that Sandy aid was being held hostage to a redevelopment deal are "demonstrably false."
Democrats immediately blasted the findings, with the party's national committee calling the report "nothing more than an expensive sham." New Jersey state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, co-chairwoman of the legislative committee investigating the same issues, said it "raises more questions than answers." Zimmer called the report "sadly predictable" and a "one-sided whitewash."
Though Mastro defended the validity of the report at the outset of an hourlong news conference carried live on national television, he was asked to explain how a lawyer commissioned by the governor could produce an unbiased report on the governor and his staff.
Mastro, who identified himself as a Democrat, also was quizzed about his ties to his ex-boss, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has been one of Christie's staunchest defenders on Sunday talk shows since the scandal broke in January. In addition, Democrats questioned the thoroughness of any review completed without cooperation from the key players involved.
"Governor Christie's account of these events rings true. It's corroborated by many witnesses, and he has conducted himself at every turn as someone who has nothing to hide," the report found.
Christie went on the offensive after not holding a press conference since early January. He told ABC News on Thursday the episode has been the most trying of his political career, but he never considered resigning over it and it will not affect any possible plans to run for president in 2016.
"I don't intend to make a decision on 2016 until a year from now, but it won't have anything to do with what's happened," he said. "What's happened in the past 10 weeks I think ultimately will make me a better leader, whether it's as governor of New Jersey or in any other job I might take in the public or private sector."
The report did not find even minor missteps by Christie and his inner circle. It cast Christie as a leader who was deeply troubled about the possibility that staff members were not being truthful to him — asking "with tears in his eyes" whether any of his top aides were involved in the lane closures.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who is co-chairman of the legislative committee investigating the bridge scandal, was critical of the report for not including information from those who refused to cooperate. "It's very hard to tell who's telling the truth when you don't hear from all sides," he said.
Wildstein and Kelly have refused to talk to investigators, citing their right against self-incrimination. In the absence of their voices, the report delved into their personalities.
"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 report said.
Christie's former political strategist, Bill Stepien, also refused to cooperate. The report found that he knew about the lane closures but not about an ulterior motive.
Mastro called for Christie's staffers to cease using personal email accounts for official business, eliminating the office where Kelly had worked and appointing an ethics officer in the governor's office. He also recommended studying major changes to the Port Authority, an agency jointly run by New York and New Jersey.