[Update: Apparently I am math-challenged. Moran was right and I was wrong. Christie has been in office five years. Hat tip to — believe it or not — EnlightenNJ.]One of the reasons why I like Tom Moran as a columnist so much is that he seems genuinely interested in the things he writes about. Moran writes his columns after researching his subjects, not before like some other columnists I can think of.
A couple weeks ago Moran wrote a column on the US Attorney scandal and its relation to NJ’s federal prosecutor, Chris Christie. I criticized it here at Blue Jersey heavily for being long on “common knowledge” but short on research and understanding of the underlying issues.
To Moran’s credit, he went back to the subject and asked some of the questions we brought up, and published a second, much more in-depth column that came to the same conclusions as the first, though not as conclusively. Unfortunately, it still fell short of a complete review and leaves open new questions.
It starts with the very first line:
For more than five years, U.S. Attorney Chris Christie has tried to ignore the critics who see political motives in every step he takes.
This opening sentence contains both a misstatement of fact and a hyperbolic over-judgment of Christie’s critics, including this web site. The hyperbole is in the slighting of Christie’s critics: we simply don’t see political motives in every step he takes. He nailed the CEO of Cendant, drug dealers, etc. He also nailed many public officials who deserved it.
But by exaggerating the concerns of Christie’s critics, Moran is dismissing them before they are even examined. No US Attorney could be political in everything they did and keep their job, and it would be ludicrous on its face to suggest it. Any smart US Attorney who did want to influence elections wouldn’t be blatant about it, but would use select opportunities to insert themselves in the process – like Christie is accused of doing with the NHCAC subpoena in the Menendez investigation.
The factual error is the assertion that Christie has been under attack for “more than five years.” Assuming Moran spiked this column on Wednesday for publication Friday, Christie had been in office exactly four years and two months that day.
Assuming that Christie was political before his appointment is not debatable since he was George Bush’s lead NJ attorney in the 2000 election, raised more than $100K for Bush’s campaign, and between the election and his appointment the Christie family (including $10K from Chris) contributed $74,000 to the NJ State Republican Committee. Before Christie was up for an appointment the entire family had contributed just $800 – ever.
There is little doubt that Christie and his family were extremely political leading up to his swearing in as US Attorney on January 21, 2002. Assuming that he stopped being a partisan as soon as he was sworn in is stretching credulity, even if you believe he didn’t use his office’s powers for partisan purposes.
Moran did talk to Christie this time, and asked if he had received political pressure to insert himself into campaigns.
For starters, he said no one in the White House or the Department of Justice has ever pressed him to pursue a corruption case, or to drop one.
“Never once,” he said. “I’ve never heard from the White House that way ever. And I’ve never been called by the Justice Department to try to move me one way or the other on a political corruption case. It’s just never happened. They don’t even know what we’re up to in that area most of the time.”
This is what we like to call a non-denial denial, and it goes to the fundamental misunderstanding Moran had of the US Attorney scandal in his previous column: the issue is not pressure from the Bush administration, but from state parties and elected officials.
- Carol Lam, fired US Attorney from California who prosecuted Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA), was pressured to change course and focus on other issues by Rep. Darryl Issa (R-CA), not the DoJ or White House.
- David Iglesias, fired US Attorney from New Mexico, was pressured to speed up the indictment of a Democrat by US Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM), not the DoJ or White House.
- John McCay, fired US Attorney from Washington, was pressured by Republican State Chair Chris Vance to bring changes of voter fraud against Democrats, not the DoJ or White House.
This scandal is not about Washington DC pressuring US Attorneys to do X or Y, but about the White House firing US Attorneys for not kowtowing to local Republican leaders. The White House didn’t demand action, but does demand fealty.
Christie noticeably doesn’t say that State Republican Executive Director Tom Wilson didn’t call him, or that no members of NJ’s Republican delegation to Congress called him. [In fact, three members of that delegation – Lobiondo, Smith and Garrett — have not answered calls to see if they had called to pressure Christie.] He specifically mentions the White House and DoJ, and we are left to guess for ourselves about anything else.
Christie’s effort to deny that the subpoena issued to the North Hudson Community Action Corporation (NHCAC) in September leads to more questions that it answers, but – in the column at least – Moran doesn’t follow up:
With control of the U.S. Senate hanging in the balance, the subpoena seeking information about one of Menendez’s business relationships breathed life into Republican Tom Kean’s campaign.
So why didn’t prosecutors wait until after the election?
Christie can’t confirm that the subpoena even exists. But he said his office has an informal rule that restricts subpoenas within 60 days of an election. The Menendez subpoena, it turns out, was a few days outside that deadline.
So essentially, with a wink wink, Christie is saying that they dropped the subpoena at the last second they could and still influence the election. That makes the subpoena all the more suspicious given that the investigation started back in the summer at the earliest.
Dannielle Leigh, who left Menendez’s Senate campaign in March, was served with the subpoena in late November, said her attorney, Remi Spencer. Leigh was also interviewed by FBI agents twice during the summer ?
From what we’ve been able to determine, NHCAC had not received any official or unofficial requests from the US Attorney’s office for any documents or information prior to the September subpoena. That means the US Attorney’s office dropped the subpoena without ever testing to see if they could get what they wanted through cooperation. Instead, they just dropped the subpoena “outside the deadline.”
This can be seen without suspicion, but it is certainly not exculpatory. This is a repeated situation as people who support Christie attempt to defend him against accusations of partisanship – the evidence appears on the face to help Christie but on examination it usually means nothing for either side of the argument.
One of our main criticisms of the initial column was that Moran suggested that Christie was in the clear because his number 2 in the office, Ralph Marra, is a Democrat and hadn’t spoken up. We suggested that Moran should have called to find out rather than assuming. To Moran’s credit he did so.
That brings us to what is perhaps Christie’s best defense. He doesn’t act alone. He works these cases with career prosecutors who would object if he tried to turn them into partisan hacks.
Marra has been in charge of political corruption cases since Christie arrived, and he’s a lifelong Democrat who says he tells his children to vote a straight Democratic ticket while “skipping the ones who are crooks.”
“I’ve never seen anything even remotely what you might call political in how we make decisions on public corruption cases,” Marra said. “People who think that’s going on are completely wrong and don’t understand how the office works.”
That’s good that a Democrat in the office doesn’t see partisanship, and I think is the best evidence for the argument that Christie is not using his office for partisan gain. Again, however, it doesn’t go far enough in that we are not accusing Christie of running a partisan office, but of occasionally doing things that benefit Republicans in the state and harm Democrats.
I would have also asked him if he voted for Bob Menendez last year, which would show a bias for or against the Senator. If Marra had pre-judged Menendez and determined that he was a crook, then the (D) after the name would mean nothing to Marra and he wouldn’t have been worried that a subpoena dropped just outside the 60 day window hurt Menendez and helped Kean Jr.
In the Us vs. Them prosecutorial world, Menendez was no longer in the same camp as Marra. He wouldn’t see the subpoena as Christie using the office for politics, but using it to screw a public crook. So, again, on the surface we have a nice story but it is not exculpatory.
Finally, Christie’s comment on how he is viewed by the political world is just ridiculous, and again intended to promote the idea that he is equally tough on both parties. But it just doesn’t pass the smell test:
“Democrats call me partisan, and Republicans call me an overly ambitious bum,” he said. “It goes with the territory.”
Christie is trying to play the if everyone is mad at me I must be doing something right tune. The problem is, the people in his party aren’t the ones complaining. Republicans call Christie the best chance to take back Drumthwacket, defeat Lautenberg, etc. As noted above, he and his family gave the state Republicans $75,000 in 2001 alone, and are well over $144,000 in the past four years.
In short – or really, really long – the latest Moran piece is an improvement over the first, but it just doesn’t clear Christie of anything. Instead, it’s just another piece that tells his side of the story without any others.