Christie's missing Bridgegate phone: What is he hiding? |Moran

By Tom Moran | Star-Ledger Editorial Board
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on July 03, 2016

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When news broke that Gov. Chris Christie would emerge from his fortress to take questions from the press on Wednesday, I dropped everything and headed to Trenton.

I had one question: What did he do with the cell phone that is now the most likely smoking gun linking him to the Bridgegate conspiracy?

Christie said long ago that he gave it to his legal team, and never saw it again. But we learned last week that his legal team claimed in court papers that they gave it back.

So where is it?

He wouldn't answer. He ignored the shouted question, and took refuge in his inner office, where we pesky journalists couldn't get to him.

Two months before the criminal trail is set to start, the man who once promised to answer all questions, to cooperate with all investigations, is now channeling Richard Nixon and stonewalling.

Which makes you wonder: What is he hiding?

This is the phone that Christie used to exchange text messages with a senior aide as the bogus "traffic study" story was smashed to pieces during a Legislative hearing in December 2013.

On that day, Port Authority executives from New York testified that the traffic study was a fairy tale. As they spoke, Christie exchanged 12 text messages with a senior aide, Regina Egea, who was monitoring the hearings for him.

Both Egea and Christie deleted those texts, and later said they can't recall what they discussed.

Sure. That is about as plausible as the governor's friendship with the King of Jordan.

This was a crushing moment in the governor's political life. This testimony threw gasoline on a scandal that derailed his hopes of becoming president.

At this defining moment, what do you suppose they discussed? The Mets?

The missing phone may have the answer inside. Because they might not have known it, but deleted text messages can often be recovered with some effort. Cyber-security experts are called on routinely to do just that in civil and criminal cases.

"They can be recovered, and it occurs frequently," says Jim Motta, formerly of the United States Secret Service and now director of investigations for Sobel & Company in Livingston. "We have recovered deleted text messages."

Guessing at the content of those messages would be rank speculation, of course.

But let's do it anyway.

My guess, shared by many people close to this case, is that their conversation could reveal that they knew the traffic story was false.

And remember, the criminal conspiracy charged in this indictment is not restricted to the closed lanes at the George Washington Bridge. It includes the cover-up, and the phony story about the traffic study.

If these texts show that the governor knew about that, and maybe even took part, then he's in deep trouble.

We may never find out. But on Thursday, a federal judge in Newark will hear arguments about the phone. An attorney for Bill Baroni, the former state senator who first sold the story about the traffic study in testimony before the Legislature, asked Christie's legal team to produce the phone. Now that they say they returned it, it's not clear what the next step in this hunt will be.

But here's a suggestion: U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman could ask Christie to produce it, and allow a search.

It's sometimes that simple. Christie promised to cooperate, so why not make the request? When Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer accused administration officials of using Sandy aid to extort her support for a downtown development, she claimed that she wrote about it in her diary.

Prosecutors asked to see the diary. She produced it. Fishman could do the same thing here.

Many defense attorneys are whispering that Fishman blew this one, that he should have issued a subpoena to get that phone in the first place, and sought a search warrant if he had to.

It's a tricky business. In white-collar investigations like this, prosecutors typically ask lawyers for organizations to search computers or phones, and produce only relevant documents. The idea is to protect privacy, and manage the workload.

But in this case, that meant trusting Christie's legal team, and that is nuts. Christie hired Gibson Dunn, the firm of a "dear friend" that his family vacationed with. And the firm's report was laughably bias: No reasonable observer takes it seriously.

So would Gibson Dunn make the extra effort to ferret out the deleted e-mails? No way.

At this point, the governor's phone could be at the bottom of the Hudson River.

But it could be in a desk at his home, or in his office. We just don't know.

What we do know is that those text messages could directly link the governor to this crime, and the public has an absolute right to know what's in it.

Christie seems content to play the role of Nixon. I think I even saw some sweat on his upper lip at Wednesday's press conference.

Which means it's up to Fishman. He's got to get that phone. He's the best hope. And it might not be too late.

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