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Christie Leadership PAC Doubles Staff In New Hampshire

By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)

TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s leadership political action committee doubled its staff in New Hampshire, and a super PAC supporting his anticipated presidential bid announced additions to its leadership team Monday.

The staffing changes come as Christie is expected to announce by the end of the month whether he’ll enter the crowded GOP primary field. Christie has put a strong emphasis on New Hampshire, host of the first-in-the-nation primary, visiting the state almost weekly and holding 10 town hall-style events there in recent weeks.

The governor is expected to be in New Jersey this week as he works to finalize the state budget before the fiscal year ends June 30.

Leadership Matters for America, the political action committee of which Christie is honorary chairman, has hired Ben DeMarzo, a former chief of staff to New Jersey Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, and Britt Carter, who was the New Hampshire GOP’s statewide field director, PAC spokeswoman Samantha Smith confirmed Monday.

The New Hampshire Union Leader reported the hiring of DeMarzo and Carter Monday morning.

DeMarzo, who was the campaign manager for Pennsylvania Rep. Keith Rothfus’ re-election bid last year, will serve as the New Hampshire deputy state director.

Carter, who worked to engage grassroots activists and reach voters through technology during her time at the state party, will serve as New Hampshire political director. She also worked for the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C., and helped plan the 2012 Republican National Convention. Christie gave the keynote at the convention.

DeMarzo and Carter join Matt Mowers, the PAC’s New Hampshire state director, and Matt Moroney, director of operations in New Hampshire. Mowers worked for Christie’s administration before leaving to become executive director of the New Hampshire GOP. He was the PAC’s first hire earlier this year.

America Leads, a super PAC created to support Christie’s anticipated presidential run, unveiled additions to its leadership team Monday.

Phil Cox, the PAC’s director and former executive director of the Republican Governors Association, announced the hiring of Doug McAuliffe to oversee advertising and media strategy, Gene Ulm to oversee polling, Mike Leavitt to handle mail and Kurt Luidhardt to be in charge of digital.

(c)2015 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: via Flickr

Christie Comments On Bridge Scandal Case At Mississippi Campaign Event

By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)

TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) told reporters in Mississippi that he’s now been cleared in the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal by three different investigations and if defense attorneys want to subpoena him, they can.

Christie took questions from reporters after attending a campaign event for Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant (R-MI) at a restaurant in Flowood, Miss., Tuesday afternoon.

Christie said he’s now been cleared by a legislative committee that was headed by Democrats, an internal investigation conducted by an attorney he hired, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He said all three came to the same conclusions “that I had nothing to do with this.”

“All you can do is tell the truth, and that’s what I’ve done and what I’ll continue to do,” he said, appearing on a video stream of the event, which aired live on social media.

The event marked the first time Christie has spoken to reporters since his former deputy chief of staff and an appointee at the Port Authority were indicted Friday on charges they conspired to close the lanes in an act of political retribution against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who declined to endorse Christie’s re-election bid in 2013. The indictments came as another Christie ally at the Port Authority pleaded guilty to two charges related to the lane closures as part of a plea deal for cooperating with federal authorities.

Christie, who is considering a presidential bid, is attending events in Mississippi and Louisiana Tuesday. He campaigned for Bryant in 2011 and Christie made an appearance for him last year amid a busy schedule of events as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Christie was asked whether the event also served as a campaign stop for his potential presidential candidacy.

“Oh heck, if it was a campaign stop for me, Bryant would be talking a lot more than me,” Christie said. “I’d have him telling people in Mississippi what he thinks of me. So no, this is really about Phil.”

Christie said he supported Bryant’s candidacy in 2011 and was in Mississippi Tuesday to urge voters to give him a second term — and also raise money for the state GOP.

“Believe me, if I come down here for campaign stuff for me you’ll know exactly what that looks like and feels like,” Christie said. “This is campaign stuff for my friend Phil Bryant.”

A reporter also asked Christie how his “moderate policies” would affect his potential presidential candidacy, a remark that drew a quick response from the governor.

“Which moderate policies on social issues are you talking about?” Christie asked. “You know, I’m pro-life, I vetoed Planned Parenthood funding in my state five different times, I vetoed a clip reduction.”

The reporter interjected, “What about gay marriage.”

“I vetoed the gay marriage bill in New Jersey and fought it all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court, so I don’t know which moderate social issues you’re all talking about,” Christie said.

The reporter asked again, “So you’re against gay marriage?” Christie replied, “I have always been, yes.”

The governor often faces questions about whether his views are conservative enough to win him a presidential nomination. He attributes his image of being too moderate to governing a Democratic state in the Northeast.

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

In New Hampshire, Christie Inches Closer To Saying He’ll Run For President

By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)

LONDONDERRY, N.H. — He didn’t walk out from behind a large blue curtain to the sounds of Bruce Springsteen. He didn’t recite his “rules” for a town hall meeting. When it came time for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to remove his suit coat, he handed it to an aide, forgoing the signature toss.

And in a tightly packed room where aides couldn’t always reach the people asking questions, Christie did something he seldom, if ever, has done in New Jersey. He offered his own microphone.

The differences in stagecraft between Christie’s first town hall event in New Hampshire on Wednesday and the 134 he’s held so far in New Jersey — 135 counting Friday’s event in Hasbrouck Heights — were mostly subtle. But there was one major, distinguishing factor: Christie faced pointed questions on federal policy and national programs instead of the usual, parochial New Jersey concerns. Sometimes his answers were specific, like his opposition to taking Cuba off the state-sponsored-terrorism list and his support for vaccinations. But others were vague, with promises of more details to come.

His 90-minute question-and-answer session in Londonderry, N.H., had a smaller crowd than those in New Jersey — due to the small venue — and a different banner. But Christie still turned questions about his positions on the issues into attacks on President Barack Obama as he does in New Jersey. And Christie, who has not said he is actually running for president, often used his work as governor as examples of what he might do if he made it to the Oval Office.

It wasn’t that long ago that Christie was seen as a front-runner for his party’s nomination. But Wednesday, as he started his “Tell It Like It Is Town Hall Tour,” Christie is just one face among two dozen declared and potential GOP candidates — a notion that wasn’t lost on town hall attendees who said they wanted to compare Christie with others they’ve already seen up close.

Brian Dooley of Nashua, N.H., spent more than a year volunteering for Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012 and described Christie as having the “kinds of gifts” that worked for John McCain, who won the state’s GOP primary in 2008 after holding more than 100 town halls. But he also wasn’t ready to throw his support behind one candidate.

“I think it’s too early in the process, and I think you have to walk for miles,” Dooley said after the gathering in Londonderry “You have to get in the trenches and do the work. I think events like this, what he’s been doing the last few days, it’s very critical to whether he’s going to go far down the road.”

Christie, who has been struggling in presidential polls, has worked to set himself apart from the pack this week, kicking off the first of four days in New Hampshire on Tuesday with a speech at St. Anselm College in Manchester that called for overhauling Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and disability. During radio interviews Wednesday he criticized potential opponents, businesswoman Carly Fiorina and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Both of them, along with Christie, plan to be in New Hampshire to participate in a state GOP summit this week.

Christie also fielded questions and weathered a few jokes about the George Washington Bridge lane-closures scandal during a diner stop at Chez Vachon in Manchester on Wednesday morning. Christie is looking to use his skills as a retail campaigner and host of these town halls to introduce himself to critical voters and elevate his media profile in the state that hosts the nation’s first presidential primary.

During the town-hall event Wednesday, Christie fielded questions on immigration, campaign finance, Cuba, federal health care, easing nuclear sanctions on Iran, federal education standards and the rising cost of college tuition.

He was also asked if he’d support a voluntary vaccination program — a topic that caused controversy when Christie was asked about vaccines during a trade mission to England in February. The governor didn’t leave any room for ambiguity this time.

“I cannot be someone who supports voluntary vaccination,” he told the roughly 200 attendees. “I think that would be the wrong step for the public health of our country.”

Christie said he disagrees with Obama’s plans to remove Cuba from the terror list, noting the country has been harboring Joanne Chesimard, who escaped from a New Jersey prison in 1979 after she was convicted for killing a state trooper and now goes by the name Assata Shakur.

The response impressed Dennis Martin, a Coast Guard veteran who asked the question.

“I wish this guy would run because we need someone like him,” said Martin, who identified himself as an unaffiliated voter.
Christie said he also doesn’t think the country should lessen sanctions on Iran because it would lead to a nuclear-weaponized Middle East.

And when asked about the influence of money on politics, Christie told attendees he supports unlimited political contributions, but they should all be publicly reported within 24 hours.

“The problem is that we have to be able to communicate to all of you and that gets increasingly, increasingly expensive and more difficult,” he said. “I think what is corrupting in this potentially, is when you don’t know where the money is coming from.”

On immigration, Christie said the country needs to secure its borders, but he said he’d use technology and manpower rather than a wall. He said that the United States needs to crack down on companies who employ immigrants who are in the country without legal permission and added he doesn’t agree with self-deportation because, “These folks are not going to leave on their own.”

David McConville, a Republican who posed the question, said after the event that the governor’s response was broad, but that’s what he expected.

McConville, who went to St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City before moving to New Hampshire 35 years ago, said he likes Christie because he’s from New Jersey, but he isn’t ready to get behind anyone yet.

“We are blessed this time around with a whole array of very competent, very well-educated, very experienced politicians who can effect the sort of change we need to get to, to bring back our country,” he said. “It’s too early in the campaign — he hasn’t even said he’s going to run for president.”

Christie closed the event with a familiar story about his final conversation with his mother, who died 11 years ago after battling cancer. He often shares the story about how they never left anything unsaid between them to explain his blunt style. On Wednesday he also used it in part to explain why he likes town halls.

“As we talk to each other, as we engage in conversation, you need to know where that conversation comes from,” he said. “That’s why I like to do this because in this kind of interaction that’s completely unscripted and you have no idea what the heck anybody is going to ask you — think about this, we’ve gone from Iran to Cuba to vaccines to Medicare and Social Security — we’ve been all over the place in an hour and 40 minutes. What an amazing opportunity, what a great country we have.”

(c)2015 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Christie Pitches Social Security Overhaul During New Hampshire Visit

By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)

TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spent his first day in New Hampshire pitching overhauls to Social Security and federal health care, visiting a pizzeria and courting Republicans during what appeared to be a campaign trip in all but name.

Christie, who said Tuesday that he will likely announce his presidential intentions in May or June, will spend four days this week in the Granite State, which hosts the first presidential primary. Later this week, 19 Republicans — including three declared presidential candidates and others like Christie who are considering a run — will be in New Hampshire for a state GOP summit.

Christie worked Tuesday to set himself apart from his GOP rivals, detailing a 12-point plan that includes reducing Social Security benefits for retirees earning more than $80,000 and eliminating them for those earning more than $200,000. During his remarks at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, Christie also called for increasing the retirement age for Social Security to 69 and to 64 for early retirement. And he wants to gradually increase the eligibility age for Medicare to 67 by 2040. It now is at 65.

The speech was one of several Christie said he would deliver in the coming months on topics that include national security and energy — the latter of which he spoke about during trade missions to Mexico and Canada last year.

Christie took shots at President Barack Obama for putting the country on a “perilous course” and he railed against Congress for not taking steps to address the “unrestrained growth of government spending on entitlements.”

“Washington refuses to acknowledge that we have a crisis on our hands. We need to force them to acknowledge the crisis and fix it,” Christie said. “And unless we deal with this crisis, the young people of this country will get poorer; the disparity between young and old, the working middle class and the retired will grow even larger. Our economy will grow even weaker. Our debt will skyrocket.”

And Christie used his speech to tout his efforts to again overhaul pensions and public employee benefits in New Jersey. He told the audience of his repeated vetoes of Democratic attempts to institute a surcharge on income earned above $1 million.

Christie pitched his benefits proposal — as well as this week’s packed schedule — as an effort to inject plain talk into the political debate.

“There’s no political upside to this,” Christie said. “The only reason I am here to say this is because it is an unavoidable truth.”

For Christie, once a popular figure among national Republicans, the stakes are high as his poll numbers have dropped dramatically in recent months and other GOP presidential hopefuls have attracted more attention.

Christie arrived in New Hampshire with his wife, Mary Pat, and an entourage of staff, including Maria Comella, his deputy chief of staff for communications in the governor’s office, and Jim Gilroy, the head of his advance team that coordinates his town-hall events across New Jersey. Comella said she and Gilroy are on vacation from their state jobs this week so they can volunteer in New Hampshire.

Christie’s top political adviser, Mike DuHaime, is traveling with the governor, as is Bill Palatucci, his close friend and confidant. The governor’s events were organized by his political action committee, Leadership Matters for America, and Samantha Smith, the group’s communications director, and Matt Mowers, the New Hampshire director, also were with him all day.

At a stop in downtown Manchester, Christie told reporters that potential federal indictments in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal would play no role in his decision whether to run. He said he’s still weighing whether it’s the best decision for him, his family and the country.

In between public events Tuesday, the governor sat down with local New Hampshire media and did a telephone interview with Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio talk show host.

On the radio show, Christie called Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state, “timid” at the helm of world affairs.

“If I run, I would beat her,” he said.

Christie also staked out a new policy position on the radio show, vowing to “crack down” on states that have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington state, and the District of Columbia have all moved to legalize marijuana, but Christie noted it’s still illegal under federal law. He has repeatedly said it would not become legal in New Jersey under his tenure, saying it’s a “gateway drug” to more serious substances.

Still an undeclared candidate, Christie nonetheless handicapped his own chances at the electoral map. He predicted he would put several swing states in play for the Republicans, including Colorado, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.

Christie’s call for changes to Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and disability drew immediate criticism from Democrats and advocates of the programs, who said Christie’s plans to “means-test” benefits would turn it into a welfare program.

“Today Governor Christie joins a long line of conservative politicians who hope to convince voters they are ‘courageous truth-tellers’ when in truth their goal is to dismantle the very programs which have kept millions from poverty,” Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said in a statement.

During a stop at Caesario’s Pizza in downtown Manchester after his speech, Christie defended his proposal that the wealthy continue paying into Social Security even if they wouldn’t be allowed to collect it, saying it doesn’t amount to a tax.

“I quite frankly think that my friend Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t need to collect Social Security,” he said of the Facebook founder. “Warren Buffett doesn’t need to collect Social Security, and their lives will not be materially changed by it. But if the system goes broke, seniors who are on the edge of poverty and don’t get Social Security, their lives will be drastically changed.”

Christie spent the evening at New Hampshire’s coast, attending an event hosted by the Rockingham County Republican Committee at The Stone Church, a bar and music venue in Newmarket.

Several attendees said they’d like to hear more from him and some said they plan to attend his town-hall event in the area on Friday.

Many said they came because they had heard about him and wanted to see Christie in person.

“He definitely won my respect, where I didn’t have it before,” said Heather Durant, a small-business owner in Newmarket.

Durant said she’s still undecided on whom she’ll support for 2016, but she appreciated getting to talk to Christie directly at the event.

“He definitely got me listening,” she said.

Christie wrapped up his first day in New Hampshire with a Seacoast Roundtable hosted by Renee Plummer, vice president of marketing for a commercial real estate development firm and a GOP campaign veteran who worked on Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential bid. The roundtable was closed to the media.

Christie plans to hold his first town hall event outside New Jersey in Londonderry on Wednesday. He’ll return to the Garden State for a town-hall event in Hasbrouck Heights on Thursday, where he’s again expected to push for additional changes to public employee pensions and health benefits. Then on Friday, Christie is back for his second town-hall event in New Hampshire and he’ll also participate in the state GOP summit.

(c)2015 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo by Bob Jagendorf/Flickr

Christie To Try Town Hall Skills In New Hampshire

By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)

TRENTON, N.J. — As he prepares to announce his presidential intentions, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie plans to take his town hall-style events — and his team’s ability to cut key exchanges and lines from them for social media blasts — to New Hampshire, home of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

Christie has used those events in New Jersey and his social media operation to take on public employee unions, push policy initiatives, tussle with critics and chastise beachfront property owners for not allowing sand dunes. But the gatherings also have allowed him to show a softer side, sharing stories of his late mother, his children’s concerns about his potential presidential bid, and stories about what it’s like to try to pick up dry cleaning with a security detail.

Now, with his approval rating at home at an all-time low and his rankings in presidential polls dropping, Christie will take the events that helped him gain a reputation as a straight shooter to a key early voting state next week — a move that could give him a much-needed boost as he mulls running in 2016.

Christie’s political action committee announced the “Tell It Like It Is” town hall series with an online invitation to the first event, set for April 15 in Londonderry, N.H., a town about 40 miles north of Boston. The governor also will hold a town hall on April 17, said Samantha Smith, a spokeswoman for the political action committee Leadership Matters for America, adding that more information on that event is forthcoming.

Christie plans to spend four days in New Hampshire next week, including April 17-18 for the New Hampshire GOP’s two-day First in the Nation Summit. It’s his first multi-day trip to a key presidential voting state this year, and the first time he’ll hold town halls outside New Jersey.

“I think he’s very talented with town hall meetings, and they’ve proven in a state like New Hampshire to be a recipe for success,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College.

Christie made multiple trips to New Hampshire last year to campaign for Walt Havenstein, a Republican who ran for governor. But this year he’s been to the Granite State only once, to give the keynote address at the Merrimack County/Concord City Republican Committee Lincoln-Reagan Dinner in February. Other Republican hopefuls have been spending far more time there.

“I think in any state, activists will say that candidates haven’t been there enough, but the truth is we have about 10 months to go before the New Hampshire primary,” Levesque said.

Christie, who has said he’ll decide in the next three months whether to run in 2016, is expected to make a strong push in New Hampshire. Matt Mowers, who worked for Christie’s administration and went on to become executive director of the New Hampshire GOP, is Leadership Matters’ state director, and the PAC recently hired Matthew Moroney, a field director for Havenstein last year, to oversee operations in New Hampshire.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll, said the governor could use a boost from the events next week. A national Monmouth University Poll released Monday showed Christie’s favorability has dropped.

“It is his best shot at getting back some of his mojo, and it has to be real one-on-one,” Murray said. “New Hampshire voters are used to having the ability to go one-on-one with presidential candidates.”

The Monmouth Poll has Christie getting just 5 percent of the vote in a New Hampshire primary, losing in potential matchups against former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (13 percent), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas (both 11 percent), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (9 percent), retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and billionaire Donald Trump (both 7 percent); and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky (6 percent). Like Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry got 5 percent. Because of such low tallies, Murray said the race is wide open. The poll also gauged favorability. Christie, who had a two-point positive rating in December, now has a negative rating. Forty-two percent of voters said they view Christie unfavorably, compared with 33 percent who have a favorable view.

“Christie’s favorable numbers have gone down the more voters have gotten to know him,” Murray said. “He made his name and reputation on his ability to interact with people, so he’s going back to the well on that. The question is whether it plays the same in Hanover, N.H., as it does in Hanover, N.J.”

The New Hampshire town halls are expected to be smaller than the governor’s New Jersey events, which have drawn hundreds of people to schools, community centers, gymnasiums, and boardwalks across the state.

(c)2015 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo Bob Jagendorf via Flickr

Christie Political Team Is Raising The Stakes

By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)

TRENTON, N.J. — For months, deep-pocketed donors have had a place to send unlimited contributions to Jeb Bush and to Scott Walker.

Those who similarly wanted to support New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who’s falling behind his GOP rivals in the race for money as well as in the polls, have not. But Christie’s political team announced on Thursday that it is catching up.

It has hired three veterans of former President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign as well as seasoned fundraisers with ties to Christie, and has unveiled a super PAC, America Leads, that will begin accepting unlimited sums in support of Christie’s likely presidential bid.

A key figure now in the mix is Phil Cox, who served as executive director of the Republican Governors Association, which raised $106 million when Christie was the group’s chairman last year.

The announcements come just a few weeks before the April 15 deadline for committees to report on fundraising with the Federal Election Commission.

Those filings will show how Christie is stacking up against other potential candidates for the 2016 Republican nomination, including Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor, and Walker, the Wisconsin governor. Both have been gaining in recent polls.

“In a competitive Republican primary the initial fight is over the support of the party’s mega donors,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “You need a PAC and a SuperPAC and top people running each of them in order to get their support because all of them are being courted by your opponents.

“If you don’t show the same desire and organization to get up and running,” he continued, “they may well think that you’re not ready to move ahead. So you have to move quickly.”

Michael DuHaime, Christie’s top political strategist, confirmed that Leadership Matters for America, the political committee that’s hiring staff and raising money to finance the governor’s travel as he considers running, hired Cary Evans, a regional political director on former President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign who has a lot of experience working in Nevada; Brian Jones, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee who worked on the last three Republican presidential campaigns; and Kevin Shuvalov, who worked for Bush in Iowa in 2000 and 2004.

The SuperPAC was established on Feb. 23 and has a Virginia mailing address, according to paperwork filed with the Federal Election Commission by Timothy Koch, a partner at Koch & Hoos, a political accounting and compliance firm.

Cox is serving as the SuperPAC’s director. Paige Hahn, a former finance director at the Republican Governors Association, is the group’s finance director, and Meredith O’Rourke, finance director of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s campaign, is working as a fundraising consultant.

Cox said he got to know Christie through his work at the RGA last year when there were 36 gubernatorial contests.

“I worked closely with Governor Christie at the RGA and saw firsthand what a strong, effective leader he is for both our party and our nation,” Cox said in a statement. “I’ve established this Super PAC because it’s time for America to lead again, and I believe Governor Christie is exactly the kind of strong leader we need at this critical point in our nation’s history.”

The Wall Street Journal first reported the creation of the SuperPAC and new staff hires on Thursday, the same day Bloomberg News reported it had a list of 41 people who have donated to Leadership Matters for America.

Bloomberg did not have the amounts contributed, but donations to that committee are capped at $5,000 under campaign finance laws.

Among those who contributed are the Texas oilman Al Hill Jr., whose family inspired the television show Dallas, and the St. Louis financier Jeffrey Fox, son of an ambassador in President George W. Bush’s administration, according to Bloomberg. Other donors include Jim Klote, a fundraiser for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign; New York investor Nick Loeb; and Greg Brown, chairman of the Rutgers board of governors and CEO of Motorola Solutions, according to the report.

Christie’s positive ratings have plunged in New Jersey, and he had one of the lowest ratings among GOP presidential hopefuls in a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. It found that 57 percent of Republican primary voters said they could not vote for Christie for president, compared with 32 percent who said they could. In terms of voter support, Christie ranked 11th out of 14 potential GOP candidates. Florida Senator Marco Rubio had the highest number of GOP voters who said they could back him, 56 percent compared with 26 percent who said they could not. He was followed by Walker, with 53 percent saying they could vote for him and 17 percent who said they could not.

DuHaime said that Leadership Matters for America has held several successful fundraisers in New York, Connecticut, Florida and California and that more are planned in the coming weeks.

“Fundraising is going very well,” he said. “Governor Christie is attracting financial support from prominent leaders all around the country.”

The committee is holding a breakfast with Christie in Bernardsville, N.J., on Monday for a small group of so-called bundlers, who commit to raising $25,000 to $100,000 before the end of the month. Bundlers are fundraisers who can gather contributions from many individuals and present that sum to a campaign.

The Texas real estate developer Ray Washburne, who is serving as Leadership Matters’ finance chairman, is holding an event for Christie in Houston this month, and another fundraiser in Philadelphia on March 25 is being hosted by U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan (R-PA), and Bob Asher, a Republican National Committee member from Pennsylvania, DuHaime confirmed.

Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot who has been urging Christie to run since 2011, hosted a meet and greet in Jupiter, Fla., on Wednesday to introduce the governor to potential supporters. Langone hosted a similar event in New York City earlier this year, though neither event was a fundraiser.

Photo: Michael Vadon via Flickr

Gov. Christie Outlines His Goals If He Runs, Wins Presidency

By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)

TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said that if he were to run and win the presidency, he would tackle the tax system, adopt a national energy policy and re-establish the country as a world leader.

The governor was asked to detail his hypothetical priorities in a brief question-and-answer session following his keynote address at the Concord and Merrimack County GOP’s third-annual Lincoln-Reagan Dinner fundraiser in Concord, N.H., on Monday night.

The event drew 250 people — a record number — several of whom said they wanted to hear Christie’s straightforward style in person as they weigh him against other potential GOP presidential hopefuls.

While he was in the Granite State, Christie had private meetings with about 20 business leaders, a small group of state senators and 15 other party officials. Bill Palatucci, the governor’s friend and adviser, said Christie was well received at all three events.

Christie wrapped up the day speaking for about 30 minutes, spending much of that time attacking President Barack Obama over foreign policy, energy and taxes.

“I almost feel bad for the president,” he said reviving a line he used during the 2012 election. “He’s like a man wandering around in a dark room, feeling along the wall for the light switch of leadership.”

Christie defended his five campaign trips on behalf of failed GOP gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein last year, dismissing media criticism that the visits were part of his own presidential ambitions. He said the race against Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan was closer than people thought.

He shared some familiar stories, including his last conversation with his mother, who died of lung cancer, saying she raised him to be honest and speak his mind.

New Hampshire holds the first primary in 2016, after the Iowa caucuses. Christie told the crowd he’d held 127 town-hall-style events in New Jersey. After fielding four questions, he promised to return to New Hampshire and answer more queries. He told the crowd to check out some of his interactions with constituents, many of which his staff has posted on YouTube.

People in the audience said they found Christie refreshing.

Jeffrey Milne, who lives in Springfield, said he agreed with Christie’s call to reform taxes.

“We need to have companies feel this is the place to be and we can get there and that’s the sense I have from him,” he said.

Janet Kidder, a member of the New London Board of Selectmen, said Christie was even better than she anticipated.

“He is more appealing to the moderates and that’s what is important to us, that someone would be willing to speak their mind but not in a very conservative manner,” Kidder said.

She added that she was impressed with Christie’s goal of building ties with leaders of other countries.

The governor was asked how he would take his New Jersey accomplishments to the national level, about support for veterans returning from war and about his position on Common Core, the federal educational standards students are tested on.

Christie, who initially embraced the tests, said in Iowa this month that he had “grave concerns” over how the Obama administration is tying federal aid to the standards.

The woman who asked Christie about his position said she supported the tests, and the governor said they were important, but he again raised concerns about the level of federal involvement.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Christie, Romney Criticize Obama Foreign Policy At GOP Fundraiser

By Melissa Hayes, The Record

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Less than two hours before President Barack Obama addressed the nation on military intervention in Iraq and Syria, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney attacked the president over foreign policy at a Republican Party fundraiser that seemed more like a presidential campaign rally.

Wednesday’s event, which was expected to raise more than $600,000 for the state GOP, was billed as a celebration of Christie’s 52nd birthday, but Christie’s and Romney’s remarks seemed more in line with something they would have said on the presidential campaign trail as they criticized Obama over his handling of Islamist extremists in Syria and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The foreign policy he’s had has not been good for America, it has not been good for our safety, it has not been good for our friends around the world,” Romney said. “Three years ago there were people saying to the president that you need to have a strategy in Syria, you should be finding the moderates and supporting them. Now three years later, tonight he’ll be speaking finally, finally doing that and yet at a time when the best opportunity for that has passed.”

The crowd of 1,000 in a ballroom at the Hilton in East Brunswick erupted in applause as Christie and Romney slammed Obama.

Their appearance on stage at the same time and their pointed remarks at Obama further highlighted the fact that Christie remains surrounded by speculation that he might run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Christie, who had been considered a possible vice presidential pick by Romney, has said he won’t announce whether he’ll run until early next year. Romney, whose name has again been floated as a potential candidate, said recently that after his 2012 loss he won’t make another bid.

“All I have to say is this: Wouldn’t our country be a hell of a better place if this man was president of the United States?” Christie said of Romney.

In 2012, Christie was a prominent Romney supporter, but cut his campaigning for Romney short in the days before the election and welcomed Obama to New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy devastated the state. That led to speculation of a fallout and post-election reports that the Romney campaign was unhappy with Christie and had soured on him as a potential running mate.

On stage Wednesday, Christie heaped compliments on Romney and held him up as the man who should be president, and Romney described Christie as an accomplished state leader who is working hard for Republicans across the country.

When people ask him why he was right in supporting Romney for president, Christie said he points them to the presidential debates.

“I want you to remember the foreign policy debate the president had against Governor Romney, when Governor Romney said that Russia presented the greatest threat in the world and the president gave some New Jersey smart-aleck response to him that, yeah the ’70s and ’80s were calling and looking for their foreign policy,” Christie said. “Well let me tell you something, Mr. President, you were wrong and Mitt Romney was right and the world is suffering because of it.”

Christie briefly acknowledged the presidential speculation, but didn’t offer the crowd any insight into his own thoughts.

“There are lots of people, lots of people who are saying now, ‘Geez, what’s going to be next for the governor,’ ” he said. “I’ll tell you what’s next. What’s next is tomorrow morning I will wake up, get dressed and go to work in the greatest job I could have possibly dreamed of and that’s being governor of the state where I was born and raised, that’s what’s next.”

Brian Riordan, an Upper Saddle River resident who attended the event, pointed to the joint appearance by Christie and Romney as a sign that would heighten presidential speculation.

“I think it’s very interesting to see them sharing the stage, especially because I know Christie endorsed Romney for president in 2012 so it’s making me wonder would Romney endorse a Paul Ryan campaign or would he endorse a Chris Christie campaign,” Riordan said.

While on stage, Christie highlighted his accomplishments in office — bringing private-sector jobs to the state and making changes to the state’s 100-year-old teacher tenure law. He also emphasized a theme he repeated during his trip to Mexico last week that the United States has to work more closely with Mexico and Canada to build a stronger North America.

Christie has had to balance his job in New Jersey with his position as chairman of the Republican Governors Association during a year when there are 36 state races. He’s been traveling the country raising money and campaigning with GOP candidates — he’ll be in Florida on Friday and North Carolina, South Carolina and New Hampshire next week.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Christie Touts Keystone Pipeline During Trip To Mexico

By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

MEXICO CITY — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie offered a full-throated defense of the Keystone XL oil pipeline Wednesday, saying it would become a part of a “North American energy renaissance” in his pitch for a continental energy policy to Mexican business leaders.

Christie, long considering a possible run for president, turned to energy and not immigration for his first major policy speech in Mexico where he is meeting with senior business leaders and government officials for what his office bills as a trade mission.

His remarks came on the first day of his trip to Mexico, where Christie pushed business interests — for New Jersey as well as the nation at large — in two speeches and a series of closed meetings in Mexico City. Politics infused all of the events, just as it hovers over the entire trip, as Christie is seen to be demonstrating that he is as adept in a foreign capital as he is at boardwalk meet-and-greets on the Jersey Shore.

Christie also met with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Secretary of Energy Pedro Joaquin Coldwell in events that were closed to the media Wednesday evening.

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Wayne hosted a private welcome reception for Christie at his home. Christie took his son Andrew, a junior studying at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and Greg Brown, chairman of the Rutgers University board of governors and chief executive officer of Motorola Solutions Inc. to his meeting with Pena Nieto.

Christie and his 16-member delegation, which includes corporate executives, Latino leaders, state officials, and members of the Rutgers board, are staying in the posh InterContinental Presidente Mexico City, a four-star hotel in the wealthy Polanco neighborhood. The hotel, which is undergoing renovations, has a presidential suite and a governor’s suite. It houses seven restaurants including Au Pied de Cochon, an expensive French bistro considered one of the best in the area.

Christie has spoken in support of the Canada-to-Texas pipeline in the past, but always did so by criticizing President Barack Obama for failing to sign off on the project. The governor’s public remarks Wednesday were free of criticism and lacked his typically blunt New Jersey style. He was gracious, but assertive as he detailed his vision for bolstering what he called the “North American energy renaissance.”

And the United States needs to work more closely with its neighboring countries, Christie said.

“Too often, our neighbors in Mexico and Canada have felt that they were an afterthought in U.S. foreign policy,” Christie said, drawing his biggest response from the audience. “Let me be clear about my view. My view is that they should be our first thought, not an afterthought.”

There was no mention of immigration in either of his public remarks, but Christie did speak about improving technology at the Mexico-U.S. border to bolster trade.

Christie is scheduled to participate in a higher education agreement signing Thursday involving Rutgers, though his office has not released any details on the partnership.

While Christie did not include any criticism of Obama in his public speeches — he mentioned the president only once referring to his working relationship with Mexico — the governor appeared to hold himself up as an alternative to the current administration in Washington, D.C.

“In North America, we have resources waiting to be tapped,” Christie said during an event hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Mexico. “We have opportunities waiting to be liberated. What is required is the vision to maximize our growth, the political will to unlock our potential and the understanding that working together on strategic priorities and compelling opportunities is the path — the path — to a better life for the greatest number of people both in Mexico and the United States.”

The remarks before chamber members followed a brief speech Christie gave at an event hosted by Choose New Jersey, a corporate backed non-profit that aims to bolster business relations in the state. The event was held at the InterContinental Presidente hotel. Choose New Jersey is covering the cost of the governor’s trip.

During that speech, Christie touted the state’s higher education institutions, existing business ties to Mexico and announced New Jersey is the first state to join a new social media platform — ConnectAmericas.com — aimed at bolstering trade between the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Tracye McDaniel, the president and chief executive officer of Choose New Jersey, and Michele Brown, chief executive officer of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, urged Mexican businesses to use them as a personal concierge service to build relationships with the state. McDaniel said representatives from more than 30 companies were in attendance.

In his American Chamber address, Christie called for an end to the 1970s-era ban on crude petroleum exports from the United States, recent energy reforms in Mexico, and the benefits of approving the Keystone XL.

“My view is that we are missing an enormous opportunity when we delay development of the Keystone XL Pipeline,” he said. “Not only is Keystone a major job creator, delays in its approval sends a very unfortunate signal around the world on multiple fronts.”

The governor cited the recent energy reforms signed by Pena Nieto as an enormous opportunity for Mexico to see technology advancements and bring in investment from around the globe.

He said Mexico and Canada, which are members of the transpacific trade partnership, should also be made parties to the transatlantic trade and investment partnership negotiations, which would allow all countries to trade under the same regulations.

Photo: Peter Stevens via Flickr

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Christie Heading To Mexico This Week

By Melissa Hayes, The Record

In the 1970s, as he was readying a run for the White House, Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter attended trade and commerce meetings in Israel, Iran and Japan.

About the same time, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, having lost two bids for a presidential nomination, was traveling to Asia, Iran and England.

And in the 1990s, Texas Gov. George W. Bush routinely visited Mexico, a relationship he used to highlight his foreign policy accomplishments before he won the presidency in 2000.

Now New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who says he hasn’t decided whether he’ll seek the Republican nomination in 2016, appears to be taking a page from their time-honored playbook.

While Christie crisscrosses the country this year as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, raising money for GOP candidates, he’ll take a detour this week to spend three days in Mexico. He plans to meet with President Enrique Pena Nieto and business leaders as well as visit the state of Puebla, home of nearly 40 percent of New Jersey’s Mexican population.

The governor, who is bringing along business, energy and pharmaceutical executives, noted Friday that New Jersey annually exports more than $2 billion of goods to Mexico and imports almost $3.5 billion. In addition, he said, the Mexican population has increased in the state by about 111 percent since 2000.

“They’re a natural partner, natural ally to New Jersey and the country,” he said in a phone call with reporters. “While we have strong ties already, I have a feeling we could make them even stronger. There’s a lot of untapped potential there.”

The trip is being paid for by Choose New Jersey, a non-profit group financed by some of the largest businesses in the state.

While Christie has said he won’t announce his presidential intentions before the November elections, a lot of attention is being paid to what he does and says in Mexico.

“It’s … a sign of attempted seriousness partly because immigration is such a big issue,” said Rodolfo de la Garza, a professor of international public affairs at Columbia University, who sees the trip as a move toward Christie running in 2016.

De la Garza, who specializes in Latino public opinion, said he would like to hear Christie talk about a path to citizenship for those who are living in the United States illegally, and how Christie would stem the trafficking of drugs and weapons between the two countries — a major point, since many states in Mexico are in distress because of drug cartels.

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said any serious national contenders must include foreign travel in their itinerary.

“I do think governors need to shore up their foreign-policy credentials these days,” she said. “It’s just a different world than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, where the United States was more isolated from things happening around the globe.”

Bush had strong ties with Mexico as governor of Texas, visiting the country more than a dozen times and frequently playing host to Mexico’s president and other dignitaries. It was a relationship that resonated with Latino voters, de la Garza said. Bush won 34 percent of the Hispanic vote in his first run for the White House in 2000, and 40 percent when he was reelected in 2004, according to Pew Research’s Hispanic Trends Project. GOP candidates haven’t come close to that benchmark since then.

Christie, whose reelection campaign included a person responsible for Latino outreach, won 51 percent of the Hispanic vote last year.

“Bush was a good man because he was used to Mexicans,” de la Garza said. “He knew Mexicans weren’t a threat, they helped make him rich. I don’t know that Christie can pull that sort of thing off, but it’s an interesting thing.”

According to details released by the administration, Christie will arrive in Mexico City on Wednesday morning and meet with the consul general of Mexico in New York and the U.S. ambassador. He is scheduled to give two keynote addresses, one at an investment seminar organized by Choose New Jersey and one at an event planned by the American Chamber of Commerce, where he’ll speak about the relationship between Mexico and the United States. He also will meet with Pena Nieto and the secretary of energy and greet business leaders.

On Thursday he’ll meet with the Mexican Business Council, a non-profit organization that includes the chief executives of the largest Mexican companies, as well as the leader of Pro-Mexico, a government agency that works to strengthen Mexico’s participation in the international economy. The administration said there also will be a signing ceremony involving higher education, though it provided no specifics.

On the last day, Christie will travel east from Mexico City to the state of Puebla, which runs a community center in the City of Passaic for the large number of immigrants living there. He also will meet with the Mexican equivalent of the National Governors Association.

According to the latest census data, 217,715 Mexicans live in New Jersey, but the Mexican Consulate General in New York believes the actual number is significantly higher, based on identification cards it issues to both legal immigrants and those in the country illegally.

This will be Christie’s second official trip abroad. In 2012 he went to Israel — a trip taken by many presidential hopefuls — and Jordan.

Carter, a Democrat, promoted trade and commerce in his foreign travels, said Gerald Rafshoon, the public relations architect of Carter’s presidential campaign.

“It helps your resume and it helps you get the knowledge,” Rafshoon said in a telephone interview.

He said candidates for a presidential bid have to prepare early.

“Anybody who hasn’t made up their mind now should not run,” he said.

Reagan did not begin traveling abroad until he left the governor’s office and failed to capture the GOP presidential nomination in 1976. Then he went to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Iran, Singapore, London, Paris and Germany — part of a strategy to bolster his foreign policy knowledge, according to an interview that Richard Allen, Reagan’s chief foreign policy adviser at the time, gave to the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

“The idea was to go abroad, meet people, shake hands, have conversations and then come back and write major speeches about the findings,” Allen said.

Christie acknowledged that there are political benefits attached to his trip.

“If you’re a national leader of the party and you go abroad and meet other foreign leaders, you learn,” he said during an event at the Jersey Shore last week. “Hopefully, if your ears are open you learn, and that will make you a better leader whether you run for anything else or whether you just continue to try to be an influential leader in our country regarding the national debates that come up.”

Photo: Fiscal Summit via Twitter

Christie’s Refusal To Campaign For Fellow Republican Gives Rivals More Ammunition

By Melissa Hayes, The Record

TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s dispute with a Republican candidate for governor of New York is allowing potential presidential rivals to try to drive a wedge between him and conservative voters, especially in early voting states like Iowa.

Analysts say that fellow Republicans can now argue that Christie is not conservative enough to win the party’s nomination and that he is too close to Democrats. In this case, he came to the aid of Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Democrat seeking re-election this year in New York, just as he hugged President Barack Obama when Obama was running for a second term against Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.

Texas Governor Rick Perry appears to be the most vocal in his push to seize an advantage over Christie. And it is Perry who may have the most to gain.

A recent Des Moines Register poll found that Perry has a higher favorability rating among Iowa Republican voters, though

Christie was viewed as the best shot among the potential GOP candidates to beat a Democrat in the general election.

Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, said on Friday that the disagreement between Christie and Robert Astorino, the Republican opposing Cuomo, has turned into a “mini-battle” between New Jersey’s governor and Perry.

“It feeds into the claim that I think we’ll hear repeated often among these GOP presidential contenders that Christie is a liberal, that he’s backing Democrats, that kind of thing,” she said. “I think people are trying to make this more about his relationship with Cuomo than the fact that Astorino is so far behind in the polls.”

Christie and Perry were in Iowa this month, captivating crowds at fundraisers and courting potential voters in the state whose party nominating caucuses are the first contest of the 2016 presidential election. Both have said they won’t decide whether to enter the presidential race until 2015.

Perry has been questioning Christie’s conservative credentials since the New Jersey governor won a second term last year. And Perry came to the defense of Astorino this week.

Christie’s spat with Astorino, the Westchester County executive, began on Monday when Christie said he would not campaign in New York unless the race tightened. That prompted Astorino to call on Christie to resign as chairman of the Republican Governors Association and question whether the lack of support is because of the governor’s relationship with Cuomo.

Christie and Cuomo jointly oversee the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and worked together to secure federal aid after Superstorm Sandy.

It was in the days after Sandy devastated New Jersey in late October 2012 that Christie put his campaigning for Romney on hold and embraced Obama as he gave the president a tour of the wreckage.

A Republican Governors Association aide reportedly told Astorino not to bother attending an RGA event in Colorado this week, but Perry invited the New York Republican as his guest, according to a CNN report. The dispute has drawn continuing media attention, with Astorino appearing on All In With Chris Hayes on MSNBC on Thursday night to discuss his encounter with Christie in Aspen. Astorino called the meeting with Christie “quick” and said he still thinks Christie should resign as head of the governor’s group.

On Wednesday, Astorino tweeted out a picture of himself with Perry, the Texas governor’s arm around his shoulder and the words “Appreciate his support.” Perry shared a picture of the two on his Twitter feed. “Glad to be with my buddy @RobAstorino in Aspen,” he wrote.

“I think if it had been any other candidate and Christie hadn’t had such a close relationship with the person he was competing with, I don’t know that Perry would have jumped on that bandwagon,” said Harrison, the Montclair State professor. “It plays into that perception that I think some people in the Republican Party are trying to create that Christie is too liberal.”

Perry is one of five Republican governors publicly supporting Astorino. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker headlined a fundraiser for Astorino in New York last month. Astorino said on the Fred Dicker Live from the State Capitol radio show in Albany on Thursday that Perry, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Indiana Governor Mike Pence and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal have all offered to support his candidacy.

Jindal, who also has presidential aspirations and is a former chairman of the Republican governor’s group, lost an internal battle with Christie to lead the RGA this year, when there are 36 gubernatorial races across the country.

Amid media reports last November that Christie had pledged to vigorously support Astorino after meeting with him at an RGA event in Arizona, Cuomo said he had spoken to Christie and was assured that was not the case. Christie said at the time that he hadn’t offered to support Astorino because he wasn’t yet a declared candidate and that was all he told Cuomo during one of their many conversations.

Astorino, who called in to the radio show from Aspen, said other governors believe he has a shot at winning after The New York Times reported this week that Cuomo’s office compromised the work of an independent commission it created to investigate political corruption in state government. But he said his race against Cuomo also presents Republicans interested in running for president a way to build connections.

“They see that there is a big opportunity, but more than that, it’s an opportunity for Republicans to actively get involved in New York. Because nationally, if they’re going to compete, they’re going to have to compete in all 50 states,” Astorino said on the radio show. “They’re going to have to make inroads everywhere so they all see that as an opportunity and what they should be doing.”

But Harrison said Christie doesn’t have to worry about building relationships with New York voters and donors. It’s more important for him to network in states where he’s less known, which could be why he campaigned for Neel Kashkari, the California Republican gubernatorial candidate, who’s trailing in the polls.

“I think the reality is it’s easier for him to get his name out linked to candidates, whether unsuccessful or not, in states like Iowa and New Hampshire,” she said. “He doesn’t have to worry about getting his name out in New York. Everyone in New York is familiar with him.”

Harrison added, “I would think he’s less inclined to attach his name to someone who is likely to lose an election in New York.”

AFP Photo/Jeff Zelevansky

N.Y. Gubernatorial Candidate Demands Christie Quit GOP Duty

By Melissa Hayes, The Record

TRENTON, N.J. — A GOP candidate for governor in New York said New Jersey Governor Chris Christie should resign as chairman of the Republican Governors Association after Christie said he wouldn’t campaign across the Hudson River unless the race tightens.

Christie was asked directly if he would campaign for Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who is running against Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, but Christie wouldn’t commit his support.

“I will spend time in places where we have a chance to win; I said that right from the beginning,” Christie said Monday at a campaign stop in Connecticut. “I said all around the start to candidates all around the country: We don’t pay for landslides and we don’t invest in lost causes.”

Astorino noted Tuesday that Christie has traveled as far as California to support a GOP gubernatorial candidate who is 20 points behind in polls, and he questioned whether Christie’s lack of support for him was linked to the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal and Christie’s relationship with Cuomo.

“Clearly he can come across the bridge and not just to raise money for himself but raise money for the Republican candidate here unless he is unable or unwilling because of an issue we don’t know about with Andrew Cuomo and the ‘Bridgegate’ scandal,” Astorino said on Fred Dicker Live from the State Capitol.

Christie’s office declined to respond. The Republican Governors Association and Cuomo’s campaign also did not respond to requests for comment.

Former New York governor David Paterson, chairman of his state’s Democratic committee, said Astorino is not being taken seriously because of comments like those.

“That is a reckless, irresponsible accusation to make with no basis whatsoever and not fitting for a qualified gubernatorial candidate,” Paterson said.

Astorino’s remarks mirror those of Barbara Buono, the Democratic state senator from Middlesex County who tried to unseat Christie but trailed him in the polls and had little success raising money.

The Democratic Governors Association spent a few thousand dollars on Buono while it poured $6 million into the Virginia race, winning that state, which had been under GOP control.

The RGA spent millions in the 2009 race against former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine, helping level the playing field for Christie against a wealthy Democrat who was self-financing his reelection bid.

Although Christie is a Republican and Cuomo is a Democrat, they have a working relationship that includes overseeing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The unlikely pair met for dinner a week before the Port Authority released its toll hike proposal in 2011. The Record, citing sources, reported in March that the governors’ top aides were involved in orchestrating a scheme to float a higher toll hike so Christie and Cuomo could propose a smaller increase, which they did in a joint statement.

Bill O’Reilly, a spokesman for Astorino, said the campaign doesn’t have any evidence that Christie has stayed out of the race at the behest of Cuomo, but he added that Christie’s relationship with Astorino changed after the bridge scandal broke this year.

Astorino first met with Christie at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Arizona last November, where Christie was named chairman of the RGA going into an election cycle with 36 gubernatorial races, O’Reilly said.

“We’ve just been perplexed,” O’Reilly said. “At the meeting in Arizona, Governor Christie seemed very welcoming of Rob Astorino as a candidate for governor of New York, and then following the Bridgegate scandal he just can’t be found, and that culminated with his remarks yesterday.”

When he was asked about it at a news conference in December, Christie noted that Astorino wasn’t yet a declared candidate.

“Our meeting was essentially me and Mary Pat with Rob and his wife asking us about what it was like to run for governor with young children and to serve as governor with young children,” Christie said in December, adding he didn’t pledge to support Astorino.

On Monday Christie didn’t entirely rule out campaigning in New York but said he’s focusing his energy on closer races for now.

Photo: Peter Stevens via Flickr

Panel In Bridge Scandal Focuses On Christie’s Chief Of Staff

By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

TRENTON, N.J.– The legislative panel investigating the Port Authority is turning its attention to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s chief of staff, one of two men tasked with questioning employees in the governor’s office about their involvement in the George Washington Bridge lane closures.

It was Kevin O’Dowd who repeatedly asked Bridget Anne Kelly, the former deputy chief of staff at the heart of the scandal, whether she was involved with closing the lanes after members of the administration were told in December that she may have knowledge of the incident.

Another senior member of Christie’s staff told O’Dowd on Dec. 5 that Kelly may have information about the lane closures, a conversation the governor walked in on. That was one of several instances in which senior staff who report directly to the governor were warned that others close to Christie could be involved early on, as reported by The Record on Sunday.

Christie nominated O’Dowd, a former federal prosecutor who worked with the governor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, to be New Jersey’s attorney general in December before Kelly and others close to the governor were tied to the lane closures. O’Dowd’s nomination is still pending and must be confirmed by the state Senate.

O’Dowd was subpoenaed to appear before the committee on Monday, the latest signal that the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation is pushing ahead with its inquiry. It was forced to postpone testimony from Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority, at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is conducting its own probe into the matter.

Wednesday’s announcement that O’Dowd was ordered to appear came a day after the panel completed its final scheduled hearing, taking testimony from William “Pat” Schuber, the first Port Authority commissioner to appear before the panel.

Republicans on the committee have complained that the panel is focusing too much on Christie’s office and not enough on reforming the Port Authority. Democrats leading the panel say they need to understand what happened before they can recommend changes.

The panel’s leaders say they are working to get to the bottom of the lane closures without the cooperation of Kelly and Bill Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager, who successfully fought legislative subpoenas for documents in court. The committee is also weighing sending new subpoenas to Kelly and Stepien.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, co-chairman of the committee, said the panel is putting together a list of other individuals who would be called to testify. He said O’Dowd is a key witness because of his close interactions with Kelly.

“There are a number of individuals we can call in and he clearly is relevant because he, among other things, was Bridget Kelly’s boss and, based on the documents and the testimony thus far, is one of the individuals that had relatively soon after the event known that it had happened and that there was some controversy about it,” Wisniewski said.

O’Dowd’s attorney, Paul Zoubek, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

O’Dowd also is among the 75 individuals interviewed by a team of attorneys from Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, the law firm Christie hired to conduct an internal investigation.

The 23-page document that Gibson Dunn produced summarized two meetings with O’Dowd that touched on everything from when the governor’s staff first learned Kelly might have knowledge of the lane closures, to the steps Christie took before and after learning of an infamous e-mail and a conversation O’Dowd had with lawmakers about postponing his attorney general confirmation hearing.

On Dec. 12, Christie told O’Dowd and Charles McKenna, the governor’s chief counsel at the time, to talk with staff in his office to determine what they knew.

O’Dowd reached out to Kelly that day and followed up with her the next day before and after Christie called a staff meeting ahead of a news conference he had scheduled to announce a new deputy executive director at the Port Authority. That was the second news conference where Christie denied having any knowledge of the lane closures and during which he said none of his staff was involved.

That day, Kelly turned over two e-mails to O’Dowd, one was a complaint about the lane closures a staff member received from the Fort Lee mayor, another was a letter that state Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat, sent to Schuber about the lane closures, which was also sent to Christie’s office.

O’Dowd told Gibson Dunn both e-mails supported Kelly’s claim that she had no advance knowledge of the lane closures. He said he did not question the staff member and supervisor who raised the mayor’s concerns because he didn’t think the communication was unusual.

Kelly repeatedly told O’Dowd she had no involvement in the lane closures before The Record reported Jan. 8 that she wrote in an e-mail, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” according to O’Dowd’s interview memorandum.

The governor’s office first learned that Kelly may have knowledge and e-mails about the incident a month earlier from David Wildstein, the Port Authority official she e-mailed.

Michael Drewniak, the governor’s press secretary, raised this issue with O’Dowd after he had dinner with Wildstein on Dec. 4. At that time, Wildstein maintained that the lane closures were part of a traffic study and that he had notified Kelly and Christie’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien.

Wildstein turned over documents to the committee earlier this year, but cited his Fifth Amendment right in refusing to testify before the panel.

After Kelly’s e-mail became public, O’Dowd was among the staff Christie called to the governor’s mansion Jan. 8 to ensure no one else was involved. O’Dowd told the attorneys that there was a discussion about lawyers for Kelly and for Stepien, whom the governor also cut ties with because of his tone in emails about the lane closures after they occurred. O’Dowd said he could not remember who suggested the lawyers or who contacted them. Kelly has subsequently retained a different attorney.

O’Dowd is the fourth person in Christie’s office called to testify before lawmakers. Drewniak fielded questions last month, as did Christina Renna, a former supervisor in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, and Matt Mowers, who worked with Renna before leaving to work on Christie’s campaign fulltime.

Renna’s and Mowers’ testimony highlighted the overlap between staff who worked with local officials in Christie’s office and the efforts of the governor’s campaign to seek Democratic endorsements. Christie has since disbanded that office and rolled its functions into the Office of Constituent Relations on the recommendations of Gibson Dunn.

Wisniewski said the committee it trying to determine whether someone implied or explicitly told Kelly that she could order lane closures.

“Christina Renna testified that while she believed Bridget Kelly had a hand in the lane closures, she also believed Bridget Kelly wasn’t the architect,” Wisniewski said. “Who was is still an unanswered question.”

AFP Photo/Eric Thayer

N.J. Employees Who Worked On Christie Image Got Raises Averaging 23 Percent

By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

TRENTON, N.J.—Nearly all of the state employees responsible for helping New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie craft and promote his image — from his press secretary to the staff that set up his town-hall events and put video clips of his appearances online — got raises in recent months that averaged 23 percent.

Some of those who received the biggest boosts temporarily left state government to work on Christie’s re-election campaign last year, then returned with new titles and higher salaries. A deputy press secretary in the governor’s office who earned $75,000 last year before he left to serve as press secretary for the campaign, for example, now makes $110,000 as a deputy communications |director.

The raises come as Christie is withholding more than $2.4 billion in payments to the state pension fund because of revenue shortfalls. And Christie has delayed a property-tax relief program that averages about $500 for seniors and some families.

And the raises to the governor’s staff appear to have happened around the same time Christie vetoed the minutes of the commission that oversees the Pinelands after its members voted to increase the budget for its staff by 5 percent. Christie castigated the commissioners and said the decision was a “conscious disregard of the fiscal realities.”

The governor’s office did not answer specific questions about the raises on Thursday, including questions about when they were awarded and whether other non-union employees were given pay increases.

“Changes in salary in the main reflect changes in position, promotions or expanded job responsibilities for these staff members,” Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said Thursday.

The Record sought the salary information in two Open Public Records Act requests. The first, filed in February, was denied and The Record was referred to the web site yourmoney.nj.gov, which the state bills as New Jersey government’s “transparency center.” But at the time only salaries for 2012 and 2013 were listed.

The Record filed a second request in March and was again denied. The state provided information only after The Record filed a lawsuit.

New Jersey’s public-records law includes a section that specifically covers public employee salary data and says “immediate access” should be given to such information.

The salary information posted on yourmoney.nj.gov does not match the information that was provided to The Record last week.

Of the 148 employees in the governor’s office, 27 received raises this year and all but four work in communications, scheduling or on the advance and briefing teams.

Only six people in those departments didn’t get raises — five employees who have worked for Christie for less than a year and his top communications strategist, a deputy chief of staff whose salary is $140,000. State law fixes the chief of staff and Cabinet-level salaries at $141,000. By law, Christie’s salary is $175,000.

Some of the employees who received the biggest raises left state government to work on Christie’s re-election campaign last year and returned to the public payroll with new titles and higher salaries.

Kevin Roberts worked as a deputy press secretary in the governor’s office with an annual salary of $75,000. He was press secretary on the Christie campaign and returned to the state payroll in January as a deputy communications director with a $90,000 salary. Roberts then received another raise, boosting his salary to $110,000 — a nearly 47 percent increase over what he made in 2013 before Christie’s re-election. Roberts’ latest increase came after Colin Reed, hired as a deputy communications director in March 2013, resigned to take a campaign manager job in New Hampshire. Reed was paid $110,000.

Dwight Foster Morss had a salary of $90,000 when he was deputy communications director for research in 2013. After working on Christie’s campaign, Morss returned to that job in December, but with a salary of $120,000 — a raise of more than 30 percent.

Wells Winegar, a member of Christie’s advance team — the staff that prepares for Christie’s public appearances — left his $42,000-a-year job to join the campaign. Winegar returned in December as deputy director of advance with a $60,000 salary.

Every member of Christie’s advance and briefings team, with the exception of an employee hired this year, received a pay raise.

Every member of Christie’s scheduling team also saw raises. Ryan Brophy, a senior scheduler, had the largest increase — 50 percent — with his salary jumping from $40,000 to $60,000.

Dan Robles, the governor’s director of planning who follows Christie around New Jersey and out of state on political trips, saw his salary rise from $80,000 to $115,000 this year, a nearly 44 percent increase.

In the communications office, deputy press secretary Sarah Dolan’s salary went from $45,000 to $60,000, an increase of 33 percent. Dolan’s raise came as part of her promotion from research analyst to deputy press secretary.

Drewniak, Christie’s press secretary, got the smallest increase in that office — just under 4 percent — putting his salary at $134,000 this year, up from $129,000 in 2013.

Christie also hired his campaign photographer and videographer, Mykwain Gainey, at an $85,000 salary. State House photographer Tim Larsen, who also worked for Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, had not received a raise on his $66,550 salary in recent years until an increase to $85,000 this year.

Jeanne Ashmore, who has run the Office of Constituent Relations, received a $25,000 raise bringing her salary to $115,000. Ashmore took on the added responsibility of managing legislative and intergovernmental affairs in January after Bridget Anne Kelly, the deputy chief of staff who oversaw that section, was fired.

Kelly is at the heart of the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal. She was fired Jan. 8, the day The Record first reported that she sent the e-mail, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” to a Christie appointee at the Port Authority.

Kelly oversaw the Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs, where staff were assigned to work with mayors. That office was eliminated after the team of lawyers Christie hired to investigate his office said it should be closed.

Kelly was paid $140,000 and Christie has not named a new deputy chief of staff.

The governor’s office has seen 24 employees leave this year. Six of those employees worked in intergovernmental affairs, including Kelly. Christina Genovese Renna, who was called before the legislative panel investigating the lane closures, left in January. Renna was the director of intergovernmental affairs with a salary of $81,000.

The issue of executive branch raises came up during a town-hall event the governor held in South River in March. A non-unionized state worker, who did not give his name, told Christie he makes less than $45,000 and had gone five to six years without a raise. The question was prompted by reports that lawmakers were pushing a bill that would allow Christie to increase salaries of Cabinet members from $141,000 to as much as $175,000.

Before the man could finish his question, Christie interjected that Cabinet salaries would not be increasing.

“They’re not, by the way,” Christie said of those proposed salary hikes.

The governor then said it’s unfair that union workers get guaranteed raises through negotiated contracts, but discretionary employees — particularly those in the Attorney General’s Office — have gone years without an increase. He blamed “three entitlements” — public employee pensions, health benefits and debt service payments — for eating up 94 cents of every new dollar in revenue the state brings in. Christie said that leaves only 6 cents to address the salaries of non-union workers and other areas of the budget that need more funding.

“We are looking at that, but I can’t make you any guarantees until the budget negotiations with the Legislature are over about whether or not we’re going to be able to do something or we’re not,” Christie said of non-union employee raises. “I’m looking at it and I’m sensitive to it and I’d like to try to help.”

Christie didn’t mention plans to give staff in his office pay raises this spring.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Christie Sticks To His Itinerary As RGA Chief

By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

TRENTON, N.J.—Gov. Chris Christie said New Jersey’s budget challenges and the ongoing George Washington Bridge controversy won’t stop him from traveling the country to support candidates as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Christie, speaking at a news conference during the association’s quarterly meeting at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan on Wednesday, said he has no intention of giving up the chairmanship.

Crediting his efforts and those of his vice chairman, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, for record fundraising this year, he said the association is in a strong position to win Democratic-led states.

“Given the success that the RGA has had in the first five or six months of the leadership of me and Governor Jindal in terms of raising money and expanding the map, I don’t think anybody is concerned about whether or not me or Bobby can make the case,” Christie said.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said fellow governors are not concerned about issues in New Jersey becoming a distraction.

“We don’t want him to give up the chairmanship,” she said. “He completely has the backing of all of the Republican governors. He’s been a rock star in a way, not just raising money but going out there and really fighting to tell our story. So we wouldn’t let him step down.”

The RGA announced last month that it had raised a record $23.5 million in the first quarter of the year, topping its previous high of $9.1 million during the same period in 2010. Since Christie took the helm of the association in November, it has raised $33 million.

He has attended fundraisers in Florida, Chicago, Maine, Georgia and Massachusetts. He’s back in Florida Thursday to support Gov. Rick Scott, who is seeking another term. The events were originally set for April 29, but Scott canceled them because of severe rain and flooding in the Panhandle.

Wednesday’s news conference was the only portion of the three-day RGA quarterly meeting that was open to the press.

The meeting — which featured Christie and Haley as speakers at a dinner Tuesday night — is meant to fulfill obligations to donors who pay membership fees to the group. The more they pay, the more access they are granted to governors. The RGA counts pharmaceutical companies, hedge fund founders and industry leaders among its members.

Christie’s appearance at the news conference came the day after he announced he would be reducing the state’s contribution to the public employee pension fund by almost $900 million to help close a nearly $1 billion revenue shortfall by June 30. The governor also proposed scaling back the pension payment for the coming fiscal year by $1.5 billion.

He defended his record, saying he has lowered the state’s unemployment rate — though it still hovers above the national average — and that he has not been able to fully enact all of his proposals.

AFP Photo/Eric Thayer

Bridge-Scandal Panel Seeks Papers From Christie Campaign Strategist

By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, NJ)

TRENTON, NJ — New Jersey lawmakers leading the inquiry into the George Washington Bridge scandal announced Wednesday that they’ve expanded their investigation to seek documents from the top strategist on Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign.

The move comes a day after Democrats questioned a former staffer in Christie’s office about the political nature of her team — which dealt with mayors and local officials courted by the campaign for endorsements — during an election year.

By demanding that Michael DuHaime provide documents, emails, text messages and his calendars, the committee is furthering its “bipartisan investigation into the lane closings and apparent abuse of power,” its co-leaders, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, said in a statement.

The subpoena seeks information about conversations and meetings DuHaime had months after the lane closures with Christie; Bill Stepien, the governor’s campaign manager; and David Wildstein, the Port Authority appointee at the heart of the controversy.

Republicans said this latest request coupled with repeated questions at Tuesday’s hearing about endorsement efforts show the Democrats who control the committee are more concerned with investigating the governor’s re-election bid than reforming the Port Authority.

DuHaime’s attorney, Marc Mukasey, said his client has been cooperating with the committee and questioned whether Wisniewski was using the investigation to further his own political career.

“He was not involved in the decisions around the lane closures as has been well established at this point,” Mukasey said in the statement Wednesday. “That simple fact, plus the fact that Mike offered to cooperate without need of a subpoena, gives us great concern that this is really about politics and the chairman’s political future. That would be unfortunate to say the least.”

But Wisniewski disputed Mukasey’s allegation as “not true” and also defended the questioning of Christina Renna, who worked as director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs until she resigned in January. Renna worked for Bridget Anne Kelly, the deputy chief of staff Christie fired after learning she sent the email, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” to Wildstein.

Stepien was a deputy chief of staff to Christie before leaving to run the campaign; he supervised Kelly and Renna.

The lane closures were allegedly an act of retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, for declining to endorse Christie.

Wisniewski said the subpoena seeks to answer questions raised in the summary of an interview DuHaime consented to with attorneys from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the law firm Christie hired to lead an internal investigation into the lane closures.

Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, one of four Republicans on the committee, raised concerns with both the subpoena and Tuesday’s hearing.

“This seems to be shifting from the stated purpose of implementing reforms at the Port Authority to more of an indictment of Governor Christie’s campaign,” said Schepisi (R-River Vale). “And if we’re truly focused on what the stated objective of the committee was, which was to understand what occurred at the Port Authority, to put forth appropriate reforms legislatively, we seem to have really gone off on a tangent of an indictment of (the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs) and the inner workings of Governor Christie’s campaign.”

Schepisi said Renna’s nearly five hours of testimony did not offer much new information and Democrats were asking her to speculate on things she did not have answers to.

But Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) said Renna provided critical details, including information about Kelly’s request that she delete an email related to the lane closures in December, months after it had been sent. Renna also testified that she did not think Kelly was the “architect” of the lane closures, a term Christie had used to describe her after he fired her for her involvement.

Kelly’s lawyer, Michael Critchley, disputed Tuesday that his client asked Renna to delete the email.

The issue is important because such a request could expose Kelly to criminal charges, two former federal prosecutors said.

“She’s trying to get rid of evidence that would suggest an ulterior motive to what had occurred,” said Robert Del Tufo, a Democrat who served both as U.S. attorney and attorney general in New Jersey. Del Tufo said it could lead to a charge of obstructing justice.

Matthew Axelrod, a lawyer in private practice who until this year was a top official in the Department of Justice and who advised U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on white-collar criminal issues, agreed and said the timing of the deletion would determine whether the potential charge would come in federal court or state court. At the time Renna said the request was made, the only requests for documents to the governor’s office had come from the Assembly committee investigating the lane closures; federal subpoenas from the U.S. Attorney’s Office arrived later.

Photo:  Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

Bridge Scandal Panel Looks To Get Insider’s View Of Christie Office

By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

TRENTON, N.J. — A former aide in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s office is scheduled to appear before lawmakers Tuesday at the first in the latest series of hearings as the investigation into the George Washington Bridge lane closures continues.

Christina Renna is expected to answer questions about her job as director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, a section within the governor’s office where staff volunteered to secure Democratic endorsements for Christie’s re-election bid last year. Renna worked under Bridget Anne Kelly, the deputy chief of staff Christie fired after The Record first reported that she sent the now infamous email, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” setting into motion access lane closures in an apparent act of political retribution against the Fort Lee mayor.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, co-chairwoman of the committee, said Monday that the panel is trying to determine what the atmosphere in Christie’s office was at the time of the lane closures.

Renna is the first of five witnesses being called before the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee in its latest round of subpoenas to answer questions about documents she turned over to the panel.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, co-chairman of the committee, said Renna would also be asked about remarks she made to a team of attorneys Christie hired to lead an internal investigation into his office’s involvement in the lane closures. The attorneys from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher released summaries of the 75 interviews last month at the request of the legislative panel.

Renna told the internal investigators that her office would receive “mandatory directives” of mayors they should not call or check in with. She said she did not know of an instance where it rose to the level of lane closures, but said not returning calls “was enough to send a message to the local elected official.”

She said intergovernmental affairs staff volunteered at Christie’s campaign headquarters in Bridgewater on Wednesdays and participated in weekend calls with campaign staff. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich was one of the Democrats targeted for an endorsement, but his name was removed from the list last April after it became clear he wouldn’t support the governor, Renna told the investigators.

Wisniewski said the difficulty will be prioritizing questions to cover everything in one day.

The panel has scheduled weekly hearings. Michael Drewniak, the governor’s press secretary, is set to appear next Tuesday. Matt Mowers, an intergovernmental affairs employee who left to work on Christie’s campaign, has been asked to testify May 20. The final hearing on June 3 will focus on the Port Authority, with Patrick Foye, the executive director, and William “Pat” Schuber, a New Jersey commissioner, scheduled to appear.

Kelly and Bill Stepien, who held the deputy chief of staff post before leaving to manage Christie’s campaign last year, have refused to provide documents citing their Fifth Amendment rights. The committee has not yet called them to testify or issued narrower subpoenas after a judge ruled the initial requests were overly broad. On Friday an attorney for David Samson, who resigned last month as chairman of the Port Authority’s board, said he would not turn over any more documents in response to the committee’s subpoena.

All three have cited the ongoing U.S. Attorney’s Office investigation into the lane closures in their refusal to provide documents. Federal authorities subpoenaed the committee, seeking all documents the lawmakers have obtained through their inquiry.

The Gibson Dunn report, which cleared the governor of any involvement, blames Kelly and David Wildstein, a former Christie appointee at the Port Authority, for carrying out the lane closures.

Wildstein was also called to testify before the committee after turning over documents, but refused to answer questions, citing his right to protect himself against self-incrimination.

AFP Photo/Eric Thayer