News Column

High-Profile Lawyers Enter N.J. Bridge Fray

January 27, 2014

By Andrew Seidman, The Philadelphia Inquirer

The bridge scandal threatens Gov. Chris Christie's political ambitions.
The bridge scandal threatens Gov. Chris Christie's political ambitions.

One helped put a governor in prison; another failed to keep a mayor out of prison. Yet another has successfully represented clients as diverse as political strategist Karl Rove and cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Some of the nation's most prominent white-collar prosecutors and defense lawyers are representing or advising key figures in the scandal that threatens to derail Gov. Christie's political career.

Legislators have released documents suggesting Christie allies orchestrated massive traffic jams in September by closing access lanes on the George Washington Bridge, apparently as political payback.

The office of U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman is reviewing the matter and is known to have subpoenaed at least two entities, Christie's reelection campaign and the New Jersey Republican State Committee. Lawmakers have issued subpoenas to 20 individuals and organizations, some of them in Christie's inner circle.

Assembly Democrats this month retained Reid Schar -- the former assistant U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich -- as their special counsel. On Monday, the Legislature is scheduled to vote to establish a single, joint committee to investigate the matter. Schar would be counsel to that panel.

The Assembly will pay partners at Schar's firm $350 an hour, plus expenses, out of its budget.

Schar was the lead prosecutor in the federal corruption trials of Blagojevich, who was charged in 2009 and, after one trial ended in a hung jury, convicted of a slew of corruption charges, including trying to sell President Obama's then-vacant U.S. Senate seat. Blagojevich is serving a 14-year sentence in federal prison.

Juliet Sorensen, a law professor at Northwestern University who worked with Schar in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Illinois for about seven years, described him as "highly intelligent, meticulous, and a very hard worker."

"He will doggedly do the legal research just as he doggedly cross-examined Rod Blagojevich on the witness stand," Sorensen said in an interview Friday.

As for Fishman's involvement, Sorensen said she did not think prosecutors would be timid or deterred by Christie's national high profile and popularity.

Fishman has won insider-trading cases and over the summer announced indictments in a massive computer-network hacking scheme.

Christie, a leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, has not been accused of any wrongdoing and has said he had no knowledge of the bridge scheme. The Governor's Office has retained Randy Mastro and his firm, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher of Los Angeles, as outside counsel.

The Governor's Office has said the public will foot the legal bills but has not disclosed the terms of the contract. Spokesmen for Christie did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Mastro, who started his career as a mob prosecutor under then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani in New York, has won wide notice, most recently for his legal counterattack on behalf of Chevron Corp. against an Ecuadorean court ruling holding the oil giant responsible for polluting a Rhode Island-size swath of Amazon rain forest.

The company was hit with a $19 billion judgment by the court in Ecuador in February 2011. Mastro helped persuade several federal judges to find some evidence of fraud by the plaintiffs' team.

Mastro, who is based in the firm's New York office, also filed a counterclaim against the plaintiffs and their lawyers and consultants in federal district court in Manhattan. There was a six-week trial in the fall and the judge is expected to rule soon.

"Randy is one of the nation's premier trial lawyers," said Michael Fitts, dean of the University of Pennsylvania law school, where Mastro is an adjunct professor. "He is sought after by clients involved in major commercial cases, and is a strategist with great political instincts and savvy."

Some of the lawyers retained by Christie associates have clashed with him before.

While trying his first case as a criminal prosecutor in 2003, Christie said of the defendant's lawyer: "Alan Zegas has a long history in this court of saying things that, at times, puzzle me," according to an article at the time in the Star-Ledger of Newark.

Zegas, who was defending a suspected arms broker, said he had not met Christie before the trial and shot back: "A statement like that is not only inappropriate but utterly baseless," according to the newspaper.

Zegas now represents David Wildstein, one of the governor's former appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who is a central player in the bridge fiasco. Wildstein resigned from his post in December. A spokesman for the Port Authority, the bistate agency that operates the bridge, said Friday the agency would not cover Wildstein's legal fees.

Zegas has also represented former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, who was convicted of fraud and conspiracy in 2008. Zegas' cocounsel in that case was Gerald Krovatin, who once suggested in a separate case that Christie had brought charges against his client, a former aide to the Democratic speaker of the Assembly, to boost his political prospects, according to a 2004 Star-Ledger article.

On Wednesday, the Hoboken City Council hired Krovatin after Democratic Mayor Dawn Zimmer accused the Christie administration of tying Hurricane Sandy relief money to a development project. Christie's office vehemently denies the claim.

Other entities tied to Christie have retained top legal talent, as well. Robert Luskin and Mark Sheridan of the Washington firm Patton Boggs are representing Christie's reelection campaign and the New Jersey Republican State Committee.

Luskin is no stranger to New Jersey political drama. At the Department of Justice, he helped oversee the late-1970s sting known as Abscam, which resulted in the conviction of numerous members of Congress and local politicians, including Angelo Errichetti, a former state senator and mayor of Camden, on bribery charges.

Former Luskin clients include now-disgraced cyclist Armstrong, the subject of a two-year criminal investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and Bush adviser Rove, who was investigated in the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name.

Neither was charged.

Sheridan is general counsel for the GOP state committee and served on Christie's transition team when he was first elected governor in 2009.

It was unclear Friday whether the reelection campaign would seek to pay legal fees with leftover campaign funds. "We're studying that issue now, and, needless to say, won't do anything that the law does not permit," Luskin said.

Joe Donohue, deputy executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), said the state Supreme Court had established that defendants cannot tap into campaign accounts to pay for legal fees when they are under criminal investigation.

The U.S. Attorney's Office has not announced a criminal investigation in this case. Donohue said the Christie campaign could seek a legal advisory opinion from ELEC to resolve the matter.

Another high-profile figure who has been subpoenaed by legislative investigators is David Samson, chairman of the Port Authority board of commissioners and himself a powerful North Jersey lawyer. He is being represented by Michael Chertoff, a secretary of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration.

Chertoff was U.S. attorney in New Jersey in the early 1990s; Fishman was an assistant attorney in that office at the time.


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