CounterPunch, Jan. 23, 2014
By Linn Washington Jr.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Bridgegate defense of being misled by staff members resembles a defense advanced in 1999 by another once top Republican NJ official to distance himself from a his role in a contentious 1990s-era scandal that roiled the Garden State: racial profiling by NJ state troopers that targeted minorities for illegal enforcement.
Christie’s defense distancing himself from Bridgegate pivots on his contention that some of his top personal staff and top political appointees kept him totally in the dark about intrigues behind the gridlock that disrupted the small town of Fort Lee last September. “Unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge,” Christie declared.
In 1999 Peter G. Verniero defended his failures as NJ’s Attorney General to forthrightly address racial profiling by troopers with the claim that he was deceived about profiling. Verniero played an ‘I-was-misled’ card.
Verniero declared that top state trooper officials – under his direct command – deceived him just like Chris Christie’s current claim that members of his executive staff deceived him.
NJ Governor Christie Todd Whitman, a Republican, elevated Verniero into the AG slot and then onto the NJ Supreme Court after he served as Whitman’s Chief of Staff.
Current NJ Gov. Chris Christie’s now ex-Deputy Chief of Staff – Bridget Kelly – is purportedly one of those at the center of the Bridgegate controversy. Christie’s bid to elevate his current Chief of Staff to NJ’s Attorney General is now on hold due to Bridgegate.
Peter Verniero claimed he downplayed allegations and evidence of biased enforcement because he accepted assertions from trusted underlings that widespread complaints about profiling were meritless. Verniero claimed he discovered those assertions were deceptive … curiously only after an April 1998 turnpike shooting of three young minority men that triggered another national outrage about trooper profiling.
Verniero claimed he didn’t consider profiling a big deal despite years of extensive news coverage about abuses by NJ troopers, repeated reports documenting profiling and a pivotal state court ruling against profiling that Verniero appealed as AG.
Gov. Christie claimed he downplayed the Fort Lee imbroglio because he accepted assertions from trusted underlings that charges of improprieties about George Washington Bridge lane closures were meritless. Christie claimed he discovered those assertions were deceptive … curiously only after the early January public release of damning emails including an exchange between top Christie staff member Kelly and David Wildstein, a ranking political appointee at the bridge authority.
Christie claimed he didn’t consider the lane closure controversy a big deal despite elected officials sending him complaints that detailed suspected irregularities, his presumed awareness of extensive local NJ news coverage about irregularities surrounding the closure controversy and legislative inquiries last fall into those closures that prompted the resignation of Wildstein, a childhood friend of Christie.
When Verniero offered his ‘I was misled’ defense during testimony before NJ state legislative committees, many legislators found Verniero’s testimony misleading and unconvincing citing discrepancies between Verniero’s verbal testimony and written documentation he provided legislators.
Although Verniero avoided impeachment removal from the NJ Supreme Court for that misleading legislative testimony and ensuing taint resulted in him serving only a few rocky years on NJ’s highest court.
The ethical cloud over Verniero for misleading NJ legislators and failing to address racial profiling did not define that well-connected Republican operative as damaged-goods in Christie’s eyes. Christie has employed Verniero repeatedly in recent years to help dissipate controversies erupting over Christie’s administrative actions/inactions, some that have included a racial-stain similar to that racial profiling controversy.
In early 2013 Christie appointed Verniero to co-chair a task force directed to examine violence related issues in NJ. Critics accused Christie of playing politics with gun violence during his reelection year, a critique Christie denied. The all-male composition of that task force reeked of Christie’s ‘Ole Boy Network’ preferences.
Two years before that 2013 appointment Christie retained Verniero (and Verniero’s hi-end law firm) to defend against a court challenge to Christie’s cutbacks in public school funding. Christie’s injection of Verniero into that school funding battle exposed both the often overlooked staunch conservative streak of Christie – who is projected as a political moderate – and an earlier role Verniero played in advancing Christie’s ideological agenda.
Christie has waged classic conservative campaigns to cut public school funding (and bash teachers’ unions) along with efforts to decrease racially integrated housing.
One Christie campaign slashed funding for family planning clinics due to his objection to provision of reproductive services. Those funding cuts crippled the ability of clinics to provide basic medical care/health screenings for low-and-moderate income families. Another Christie campaign involved repeated efforts to shut down the New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing – an organization whose work includes increasing housing options for minorities.
Late last fall, when Bridgegate was percolating, a lawsuit forced the Christie Administration to release documents on relief aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy. Those Christie Administration documents showed that aid requests from black and Latino homeowners were rejected at rates far higher than whites. Those documents also detailed other suspect practices around relief aid.
Christie, with his characteristic bluster, acidly dismissed that evidence of apparent discriminatory distribution of Sandy relief aid as mere “statistical anomalies.” Christie denied making relief awards based on considerations of “race or ethnicity.”
Further, Christie denigrated the Latino, liberal and black organizations behind that lawsuit as “hack” groups simply looking for attention. One of those ‘hack’ groups was NJ’s NAACP branch, the oldest civil rights organization in New Jersey. The NAACP has consistently criticized Christie for the limited diversity on his personal staff and in his top political appointments.
Parallel to state and federal investigations into Bridgegate is a federal probe examining Christie’s use of $25-million in Sandy relief aid for a Jersey Shore tourism marketing campaign in 2013. That ad campaign was altered to feature Christie and his family. Those federally funded marketing ads ran at the same time Christie was running for reelection as a compassionate, effective administrator. Christie’s office stonewalled media requests last fall during his reelection drive for information on that marketing campaign.
One of the first statewide controversies that soiled Christie was his sacking of the only black member of the NJ Supreme Court. Christie refused to reappoint that respected jurist, the first such refusal in modern New Jersey history.
Christie sought influence over NJ’s historically non-partisan supreme court reportedly due to his dislike of two of that court’s decades-old rulings: one that ordered increased state funding for public schools, particularly schools in poor (predominately minority) areas and another ruling to end segregated housing. Those twin rulings occurred before that black justice joined the NJ Supreme Court.
One prominent reaction to Christie’s sacking of that black justice was the mass resignation of the independent body that screened NJ judicial nominees. Christie repopulated that body with all Republicans (and all whites) placing Peter Verniero as that body’s new chair.
While Bridgegate centers on allegations that those lane closures were political retaliation against Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor for failing to endorse Christie’s reelection, some are speculating that a root of Bridgegate lies with retaliation against Fort Lee area Democratic state legislative members for their failures to support Christie’s partisan plans for NJ’s judiciary.
NJ state and federal investigations will determine what Gov. Chris Christie knew about Bridgegate and when he knew it. What’s known at this point is the ‘Who’ of Chris Christie: a bellicose bully.
Linn Washington Jr. is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper. His work, and that of colleagues JOHN GRANT, DAVE LINDORFF, LORI SPENCER and CHARLES M. YOUNG, can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net