Judge slams Christie law firm over Bridgegate investigation

By Ted Sherman | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on December 16, 2015

A federal judge in Newark Wednesday quashed a subpoena by attorneys for William Baroni (l.), and Bridget Kelly (r.), for apparently nonexistent notes requested from the law firm hired by the Christie administration to investigate Bridgegate, but harshly criticized the firm for 'gamesmanship.'


NEWARK — A federal judge harshly criticized the law firm hired by Gov. Chris Christie's administration to investigate the George Washington Bridge scandal, questioning why it did not retain notes taken during witness interviews in the most high-profile political case in years.

While U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton agreed to quash a subpoena by attorneys for the defendants in the case who are seeking those notes — saying there was no reason to doubt the assertions that the material did not exist — she expressed frustration over the actions by the firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher.

"It is easy to see why defendants have cried foul," wrote the judge in a decision released Wednesday afternoon. "This court shares the defendants' frustration. Although GDC did not delete or shred documents, the process of overwriting their interview notes and drafts of the summaries had the same effect. This was a clever tactic, but when public investigations are involved, straightforward lawyering is superior to calculated strategy."

She added that the taxpayers of the state paid Gibson Dunn & Crutcher millions to conduct a transparent and thorough investigation.

"What they got instead was opacity and gamesmanship. They deserve better," she wrote.

Awaiting trial in the case are William Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Anne Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff to the governor. The two were indicted May 1 in connection with the abrupt shutdown of local access lanes at the George Washington Bridge in September 2013, in what federal prosecutors say was a deliberate scheme to tie up traffic in Fort Lee to punish Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee who declined to back Gov. Chris Christie in his 2013 re-election bid.

David Wildstein, a former high-level Port Authority patronage appointee who worked for Baroni, has already pleaded guilty to his role in the scheme, implicating both Baroni and Kelly, who both say they are innocent. Wildstein is cooperating with prosecutors.

The case is scheduled to go to trial in April of next year.

The firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher had been commissioned by the Christie administration to conduct an internal investigation of the so-called Bridgegate scandal at a time he was considering a run for the Republican nomination for president. The investigation, headed by federal prosecutor Randy Mastro, led to a report that exonerated and placed most of the blame for the bridge lane shutdown on Kelly.

"What we found was Gov. Christie had no involvement in the decision to close these lanes, and no prior knowledge of it," said Mastro following the March 2014 release of report.

But as the trial of Baroni and Kelly approached, their attorneys court sought all material used by Gibson Dunn in preparing its report, while accusing the firm of making a "deliberate and systematic" effort to destroy notes taken while interviewing witnesses.

Gibson Dunn asserted that pursuit of the firm's notes amounted to a "fishing expedition" and asked Wigenton to quash a subpoena for the notes.


The judge noted that Gibson Dunn acknowledged it intentionally did not keep notes. She cited a letter from Mastro, who said the firm "was careful about the manner in which we prepared our interview memoranda and other work product" because of a parallel legislative investigation and interest by the media. As a result, he said interviews were summarized electronically by one attorney and then edited electronically into a single, final version.

"The practical effect of this unorthodox approach was to ensure that contemporaneous notes of the witness interviews and draft summaries would not be preserved," noted the judge. "Rather they would be overwritten during the creation of the revised and edited final summary.

Wigenton said attorneys are trained to "scrupulously document information when conducting internal investigations," and that Gibson Dunn has done exactly that in the past.

But while acknowledging her "distaste for Gibson Dunn's tactics," she said there is no basis to doubt the firm's representations that such notes or drafts do not exist, and agreed to the firm's motion to quash the request for the material.

While not happy with the court's decision, Kelly's attorney said her characterization of Gibson Dunn's actions the case were on the mark.

"I have maintained that the manner in which the interviews were conducted was akin to a deliberate flim flam," said Michael Critchley of West Orange. "The court's words more eloquent than that, but had the same meaning."

Baroni's attorney, Michael Baldassare of Newark, said "Every taxpayer in New Jersey" should read the court's criticism.

"We cannot say it any better," he said.

 Gibson Dunn did not respond to requests for comment.

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