In Inquiry, It’s Christie Against Prosecutor

Now, however, Mr. Fishman has been thrust into the awkward and highly public role of investigating his predecessor, as part of an inquiry into the closing of access lanes at the George Washington Bridge and other apparent acts of political retribution.

No longer can Mr. Fishman, whom lawyers often describe as competitive and proud, avoid what he has been loath to invite: comparisons to his predecessor.

“You want to create a legacy if you take that job, and there’s no way you’re going to create a legacy, after Chris, prosecuting public corruption cases,” said Lawrence S. Lustberg, a prominent defense lawyer who has known Mr. Fishman since they attended Hebrew school as children in Bergen County. “So Paul is moving the office into other areas, taking it in directions where the District of New Jersey has never gone.”

It is hard to overstate the discomfort afflicting New Jersey’s insular legal establishment as one of its biggest luminaries warily circles another. There is only one United States attorney for the entire state, unlike the four in New York, and the state attorney general, a highly visible elected official almost everywhere else, in New Jersey is appointed by the governor.

Injecting even more tension into what could be a make-or-break moment for Mr. Christie, a likely Republican presidential candidate in 2016, is that the two, while cordial in public, have never quite seen eye to eye. Their differences extend from personality and temperament to managerial style to their approach to jurisprudence.

In private, Mr. Christie has called the diminutive and intense Mr. Fishman a “Napoleon.”

Mr. Fishman, a Democrat, believes Mr. Christie politicized the office, according to people who know them both.

Mr. Fishman declined to comment for this article. A spokesman for Mr. Christie also declined, citing the governor’s remarks in a recent radio interview: “I hated when I was U.S. attorney when politicians would give opinions about what should be done or not done by a prosecutor while they were in the midst of doing their work, and I’m just not going to do that.”

To further complicate matters, two of Mr. Fishman’s top prosecutors, including the head of his public-corruption unit, have recused themselves from the investigation because of ties to Mr. Christie, according to people familiar with the inquiry. And of the dozens of lawyers who have worked alongside the two men, many declined to talk because they, or their firms, represent someone entangled in the widening investigation.

A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Mr. Fishman has spent most of his career as a government lawyer. At the United States attorney’s office in Newark, he worked first for Samuel A. Alito Jr., now a Supreme Court justice, then as the second-in-command to Michael Chertoff, who later was secretary of homeland security. He went on to serve as a top adviser to Jamie S. Gorelick, a deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration.

All three attended Mr. Fishman’s swearing-in ceremony as United States attorney in December 2009. Mr. Christie was there, too, as governor-elect. But as he decimated the top ranks of the United States attorney’s office by luring some 20 senior prosecutors to Trenton, Mr. Fishman became increasingly agitated.

That friction — compounded by a broad government hiring freeze — burst into the open during one of many office farewell parties in 2010. With Mr. Christie on hand, Mr. Fishman looked squarely at him, hoisted a directory of New Jersey lawyers and shook it out of frustration.

“If you’d like to hire more people, I’m going to give this to you,” an exasperated Mr. Fishman said, according to people who attended.

Since then, Mr. Fishman has hired more than 60 new attorneys, changing the texture of an office that now has 133 lawyers and 122 other employees. Some reflect Mr. Fishman’s more measured, fair-minded reputation, former employees and defense lawyers said, rather than the more opportunistic bunch that they said Mr. Christie, a graduate of Seton Hall School of Law, tended to favor.

While Mr. Fishman has not brought public corruption cases at the same rate as Mr. Christie, he has not shied away from them, either: Even as the bridge scandal was captivating the public, Mr. Fishman’s office was successfully prosecuting the mayor of Trenton, Tony F. Mack, for corruption. He was found guilty on all counts on Friday.

One area in which Mr. Fishman sharply broke with Mr. Christie was on deferred prosecution agreements, which let companies avoid indictment by agreeing to oversight by a federal monitor.

Mr. Christie was widely criticized for giving political allies highly lucrative appointments as federal monitors in the hip-and-knee surgical implant industry, among others. Those he named included David Samson, the current chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who is a crucial figure in the bridge scandal; John Ashcroft, the former attorney general; and David N. Kelley, a former United States attorney in Manhattan who, in a controversial move, had opted not to indict Mr. Christie’s brother, Todd, in 2005, in an illegal trading scheme.

The Department of Justice later tightened rules so that monitors would not be chosen solely by a United States attorney. But Mr. Fishman went further: He said no monitor could be a partner in a law firm that was involved with other matters before his office, whether representing witnesses, targets or defendants.

“He’s old-school,” said Neil MacBride, a former United States attorney in Virginia, whose office handled, among other cases, the corruption investigation into former Gov. Bob McDonnell. “He recognizes that it’s the job of a prosecutor many times to not bring a case, but just follow facts and laws wherever they lead.”

Mr. Fishman, donated more than $10,000 to Democrats in federal and state races before he became United States attorney. But people in both parties described him as a straight arrow. “He’s one of the brightest and most ethical people I have ever practiced law with,” said John J. Farmer Jr., a former attorney general under Gov. Christie Whitman. “He’s about as close to nonpartisan as you can get.”

Inside the office, Mr. Fishman is typically described as witty and fast-talking, and always focused on cases. He will often pigeonhole a junior prosecutor, or talk excitedly about the latest opinion from the Third Circuit or other legal developments.

“He is the Socratic method, par excellence,” said Michael Martinez, a former prosecutor who worked for both Mr. Christie and Mr. Fishman.

Mr. Christie, by contrast, was described as an inspiring leader who constantly worked the hallways, analyzed facts quickly, acted decisively and boosted morale by celebrating the team’s successes.

“Paul is the kind of guy who wanted to know everything about everything, and sometimes that can slow you down,” said one former prosecutor who, having worked for both men, requested anonymity because he did not want to damage any relationships. “It was more hierarchical with Chris: This is what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.”

Mr. Fishman and Mr. Christie do not interact regularly because of the federal versus state nature of their jobs. But on several occasions, Mr. Christie expressed frustration that Mr. Fishman was not sharing information about federal law enforcement actions, according to a former administration official.

They are more likely to cross paths when a judge is sworn in or retires. And the result can involve a little passive-aggressive behavior.

During the investiture ceremony of Patty Shwartz as a Court of Appeals judge in October, Mr. Fishman teased Mr. Christie — who had publicly scorned the MTV show “Jersey Shore” as “negative for New Jersey” — for having only made Snooki even more of a household name.

In turn, Mr. Christie unfurled one memorable tale after one another, in what one attendee recalled as a “heavyweight boxing match of wits.”

But Mr. Christie actually delivered one small jab directly at his successor.

“If each and every one of you had the time to come up here, were given the time to come up here and speak,” Mr. Christie said, “you all would have spoken less than Paul Fishman.”

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