Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Melissa Hayes, Michael Linhorst and John Reitmeyer, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

TRENTON, N.J. — Lawmakers investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closures gave New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s lawyers one week to produce details of their review, a request made while legislators wait for a key court ruling and consider their next moves as a federal criminal probe appears to intensify.

The New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation met Tuesday for the first time since the team of former federal prosecutors hired by Christie’s office issued the report that said the governor had no direct involvement in the politically motivated lane closures.

Tuesday’s meeting saw a marked rise in partisanship — Republicans and Democrats raised their voices for a heated exchange that took up much of the 12-minute public hearing. Republicans called on the committee to discuss bills that would change the Port Authority, and Democrats pushed back that it must first get to the bottom of who carried out the lane closures and for what reason. The political bickering came a day after Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, questioned whether the committee should stop its work if a judge doesn’t order two key witnesses — Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and former campaign manager Bill Stepien, who have cited their constitutional right against self-incrimination — to turn over documents.

The committee is trying to determine its next steps as it awaits the decision of a state Superior Court judge.

Also unclear is what role the committee can play as federal prosecutors appear to be ramping up their investigation. A federal grand jury heard testimony from Christie’s press secretary, Michael Drewniak, on Friday. There are also media reports that David Wildstein, a former Christie appointee at the Port Authority, met with federal investigators for several days.

Sweeney (D-Gloucester), told The Star-Ledger’s editorial board Monday that if the judge rules against the committee, it should stop its investigation and let the federal inquiry go forward. Sweeney later issued a statement saying he supports the committee’s work and it should consider all of its options — including an appeal — if the judge does not rule in its favor.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, co-chairman of the committee, said the panel’s lawyer has been speaking with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and said he is confident the committee’s work will not interfere with the federal probe. He said the two investigations have different goals; federal prosecutors could bring criminal charges, while the committee is working to propose legislation.

Some Republican members of the committee raised concerns about the dueling investigations. Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, an attorney from River Vale, cautioned that problems could arise if the panel calls key witnesses who may also be asked to testify before a grand jury.

“We have to ensure we’re keeping in contact with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and at any time if we’re told to back off that, we back off,” she said.

It’s unclear how much all of these investigations are costing taxpayers. The panel’s attorney, Reid Schar, submitted a $200,000 bill for work through Jan. 31. Acting Attorney General John Hoffman testified before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Tuesday that the law firm handling the internal review has not submitted bills. The legislative committee’s attorney is billing at a rate of $350 an hour; the governor’s office is paying $650 an hour.

Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, and co-chairwoman state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), said the committee is trying to obtain information from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the law firm Christie’s office hired to complete the internal review and represent it in the ongoing legislative and federal investigations. That report, which blames Kelly and Wildstein for the lane closures, cites interviews with 70 individuals — including Christie and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who is at the center of the Hoboken mayor’s allegations that the administration threatened to withhold Superstorm Sandy aid if she didn’t fast-track a development.

Weinberg said the committee does not have a complete list of those interviewed and Wisniewski said he does not believe they were taped or transcribed. But he said the committee should get any documents detailing those interviews. He said if the committee does not receive the information by the end of the week it would issue subpoenas either to Christie’s office or Gibson Dunn.

“They’ve indicated a desire to work with our counsel to turn over documents,” Wisniewski said. “But that indication has stopped short of saying, ‘Yes, here they are.’ ”

Investigative team leader Randy Mastro, a former federal prosecutor and member of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s Cabinet, said his office has been working with the committee’s attorney.

“We reached out to counsel for the committee over a week ago to discuss sharing voluntarily the interview memoranda regarding the lane realignment upon which our report was partially based,” Mastro said in a statement released by the governor’s office Tuesday. “In light of the committee’s statements this afternoon, we will look forward to continuing that cooperative dialogue.”

The Republicans on the committee pushed for the panel to take action on a package of bills they proposed in late February that they say would bring more transparency to the Port Authority. The suggestion set off a heated debated during the public meeting before the group moved behind closed doors to meet with its attorney.

Assemblywoman Amy Handlin (R-Monmouth), said the committee should be taking action now to reform the Port Authority. She noted that while the committee has already been billed more than $200,000 for Schar’s work through Jan. 31, GOP members have been asking for itemized bills, which they have not yet received.

“For every dollar that we spend here, the Port Authority is spending $100, $1,000 or $10,000 in a way that is completely dysfunction(al), even parasitic,” she said. “It’s been going on for years, we all know that. This committee has been allowing it to willfully go on for the 82 days that we have been in existence.”

Wisniewski, though, said the committee must first get to the root of the lane closures before it can decide what action to take. He accused Handlin of “showboating.”

“We’re going to get one opportunity to do this and do it right,” he told reporters after the meeting. “So speed is not high on our list. Doing it right is.”

Schepisi said after the meeting that the Republicans were only trying to begin a discussion on the bills and said they also support continuing the legislative investigation.

“There’s no reason why the two things can’t happen at the same time,” she said.

Behind closed doors, Wisniewski said the lawmakers “heard our counsel’s assessment” of the Gibson Dunn report, which was released last month, which blamed Kelly and Wildstein with carrying out the lane closures in an act of political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.

Photo: Peter Stevens via Flickr

If Boss Trump is headed for defeat, he's getting his revenge early. His revenge upon his deluded supporters and the people they love, that is. Trump's re-election campaign now consists mainly of what epidemiologists call "super-spreader" events: large-scale rallies of unmasked, non-socially distanced Trumpists yelling in each other's faces while the Big Man emits a non-stop barrage of falsehoods, exaggerations, and barefaced lies.

Let me put it this way: If, say, the Rolling Stones decided to put on free concerts at airports around the country, they'd likely end up being taken into custody and deported as undesirable aliens. Of course, they'd also draw far bigger crowds than Trump, but that's not the point. The point is that Trump's actions are reckless and immoral; the peacetime equivalent of war crimes.

"Covid, covid, covid, covid, covid," he hollers. Trump claims that the United States is "turning the corner" on the pandemic, and that the accursed news media will quit reporting Covid-19 fatalities come November 4. He claims that health officials are motivated by greed because "doctors get more money and hospitals get more money" if they report that the virus was the cause of death.

Surveys have shown that more than a thousand physicians and nurses have died fighting the disease nationwide.

As ever, what he accuses others of doing is an excellent guide to the question: What would Trump do? Answer: he'd steal the silver dollars off a Covid victim's eyes and demand an investigation of Joe Biden

According to the Washington Post, the Trump campaign organization signed an agreement with officials in Duluth, Minnesota to limit attendance at a September 30 fly-in rally, in accordance with public health guidelines. Hours before the event, it became clear that no effort was being made to honor the agreement; some 2500 Trump supporters bunched up without masks on the tarmac, ten times the agreed limit.

Health Department officials' protests were simply ignored. Three days later, Trump himself was taken to Walter Reed Hospital by helicopter. Three weeks after that, the following headline appeared in the Duluth News-Tribune: "St. Louis County sees another record-breaking week of COVID-19 cases."

Any questions?

The Trump Circus subsequently performed in Janesville and Waukesha, Wisconsin in the midst of a record-setting pandemic outbreak there. "It took us 7 and a half months to reach our first 100,000 cases, & only 36 days to reach our second," the Wisconsin Department of Health tweeted. "In just two short months, the 7-day average of new confirmed cases has risen 405%."

But the show must go on. Trump regaled his Janesville audience with a veritable torrent of lies. The New York Times did a thorough fact-check of his October 17 speech. Reporters documented 130 false statements during Trump's 87 minutes onstage. Nearly three-quarters of his factual claims were untrue. The most egregious concerned Covid-19, probably because the disease represents his single greatest failure and most damaging political liability.

Another question: Does Trump count upon his supporters' invincible ignorance or simply share it? I fear it's a little of both. In Janesville, Trump made this absurd claim two minutes into his harangue: "When you look at our numbers compared to what's going on in Europe and other places," he said "we're doing well."

Any regular newspaper reader knows that this is simply nonsense. As the Times reports, "America has more cases and deaths per capita than any major country in Europe but Spain and Belgium. The United States has just 4 percent of the world's population but accounts for almost a quarter of the global deaths from Covid-19."

Germany, to choose the most striking comparison, has suffered only 122 deaths per million of its population, according to Johns Hopkins University. The United States has recorded more than five times as many: 686 per million. Neighboring Canada, meanwhile, is at 264 per million. Several Asian countries, have handled the pandemic even better.

It's a matter of capable leadership and public cooperation.

No wonder Trump appears to have succumbed to a case of dictator envy. "COVID, COVID, COVID is being used by [the 'Fake News' media] in total coordination" he tweeted the other day "in order to change our great early election numbers. Should be an election law violation!"

Yeah, well they all report the same World Series scores too. Furthermore, if Trump had good election numbers, he wouldn't whine so much. Has there ever been a bigger crybaby in the White House?

(In related news, Vladimir Putin has issued a mandatory mask mandate after a surge in Russian Covid infections. Go figure.)

Meanwhile, the rallies go on; a bizarre spectacle people treat as if it's normal. Trump has become Covid-19's Typhoid Mary, an Irish cook who unwittingly infected 53 people back in 1906.

But unlike Mary, he should know better. If anybody should be locked up, as his rapt admirers chant, it's the Super-Spreader in Chief.