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Saturday, December 3, 2016

By John Reitmeyer and Michael Phillis, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

TRENTON, N.J. — The law firm New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hired in the wake of the George Washington Bridge controversy has no limit on what it can charge the state after already billing taxpayers $3.3 million for its first two months of work.

And the money to pay Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher comes from the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, including funds paid to the state following legal settlements, a spokesman for the office said Tuesday.

The firm’s legal bills, and those submitted by other outside attorneys doing work on the issue, “are not expected to be a significant line-item,” spokesman Lee Moore said.

Hired in early January, Gibson Dunn produced a report in late March that cleared Christie of any prior knowledge or role in the September lane closures, which tied up traffic for several days in Fort Lee and also delayed ambulances and other emergency responders.

Some witnesses coming before a legislative committee investigating the lane closures have questioned some of the firm’s work, saying memos of interviews the lawyers conducted with them did not always accurately portray what they thought they said.

In addition to interviewing witnesses and compiling the report, the lawyers have also been assisting the governor’s office as it responds to numerous document subpoenas issued by the legislative committee.

And the firm is also handling the response to investigations by law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, that were launched after emails published by The Record in January indicated a former top Christie staffer and a former Christie appointee at the Port Authority were involved in the lane closures, apparently to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing the governor’s 2013 re-election.

Acting Attorney General John Hoffman told the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee recently there would be no cap on Gibson Dunn’s legal expenses; Moore reiterated that policy Tuesday.

In all, the invoices the firm submitted last month for January totaled $1.1 million, and a second batch of invoices for February that were released on Monday added up to an additional $2.2 million.

“Hold onto your hat because there’s two more months of bills coming,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, co-chairman of the legislative committee, on Monday.

Taxpayers are also funding the special counsel hired by Wisniewksi’s committee. Chicago-based former assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar has billed lawmakers $687,000 and Hackensack-based Leon Sokol has been paid $40,000, according to the latest bills made public.

On Monday, the Attorney General’s Office released documents showing that 23 unidentified current or former state employees would get legal assistance paid for at least in part by the state. The Port Authority has taken similar action for 15 employees.

The 81 pages of Gibson Dunn bills released by the Attorney General’s Office for February refer to reviews of documents, interviews of witnesses and meetings with federal authorities. Many are partially redacted.

The bills indicate that 60 attorneys and support staffers put in about 6,400 hours in February on the bridge lane closures. They also charged $6,372 in expenses.

The governor’s office originally said that Gibson Dunn would be paid at a rate of $650 an hour for attorneys — a reduction from what they would normally bill clients. But the attorneys have been billing at a rate of $350, the same as Schar.

Randy Mastro, the lead Gibson Dunn attorney handling the work for New Jersey, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. A spokesman for Christie also declined to comment.

In addition to releasing its report, the firm also made public memoranda in April from the interviews it conducted, including summaries of interviews with Christie and some of his closest aides.

One of those aides, Chief of Staff Kevin O’Dowd, took issue with two sections of Gibson Dunn’s memorandum from his interview during an appearance before the legislative committee on Monday. Former Christie staffer Christina Renna quibbled in May with the inclusion of the phrase “mandatory directives” in the Gibson Dunn memorandum of her interview.

Photo:  Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr