Editor’s Note: This story was provided by the Center for Public Integrity as part of the Center’s State Integrity Investigation.
By Ian Shearn, Center for Public Integrity
New Jersey governors wield more power than most, if not all, of their counterparts across the nation. And perhaps no one has used that power as masterfully as Gov. Chris Christie.
Already lauded for a string of political corruption convictions when he was U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, Christie has shown the same no-holds-barred style beneath the golden dome of the Statehouse. He took on difficult issues and went after sacred cows. The tougher he talked, the more New Jersey liked him. He won a second term in a landslide, bolstering his presidential aspirations.
But everything changed abruptly on Jan. 8, 2014, less than two weeks before he was sworn in for a second term. That’s when the now famous memo, penned by a top Christie aide, became public: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
The ensuing scandal — in which at least one Christie aide and two of his appointees allegedly orchestrated a massive traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge to punish a local mayor who had refused to endorse the governor’s re-election — would become known as “Bridgegate.”
One of those appointees pleaded guilty. The two others await trial. Christie himself appears to have avoided charges, but the federal investigation has expanded to other matters. (Most recently, the probe felled United Airlines’ chief executive Jeff Smisek, who resigned in September as investigators looked into whether the airline reinstated a money-losing route to curry favor with David Samson, who Christie appointed as chairman of the Port Authority; the authority controls both Newark Airport and the George Washington Bridge. Samson resigned and the U.S. attorney for New Jersey is investigating the matter, but no charges have been filed.)
Bridgegate is perhaps the most brazen of a series of controversies, including lavish all-expense-paid trips and an ongoing battle with the press over public records, that have engulfed the Christie administration in recent years.
All of this has contributed to the state earning an overall score of 65, or a grade of D, in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven analysis of state government accountability and transparency conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. The report also found in New Jersey a significant “enforcement gap,” which measures the difference between the laws on the books and how they’re actually implemented.
The score places the Garden State 19th overall, a precipitous drop from 2012, when it earned a grade of B+ and the top rank in the nation. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the questions and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
In a written statement, Brian Murray, a spokesman for the governor, said Christie “has proposed broad-based ethics reforms to strengthen transparency and good government – which have failed to be adopted by the legislature,” such as a proposal in 2010 that would have barred officials from holding two public positions simultaneously. Murray said that little has changed since 2012 and that the difference in score was due to bias in the reporting.
Nonetheless, months of reporting for the State Integrity Investigation suggest that most of New Jersey’s decline can be traced to the executive branch, and particularly the governor’s office.
A New Era of Transparency?
On his first day as governor, Christie promised “a new era of accountability and transparency.” His record, many journalists and watchdogs say, shows just the opposite.
One of the most dramatic declines in the state’s score was in the category of public access to information, for which the Garden State earned an F.
From January 2012 through Aug. 7, 2014, Christie’s administration paid more than $400,000 in legal fees to various plaintiffs who successfully sued New Jersey for government records, according to documents obtained in 2014 by the Associated Press. At the time, the administration was fighting in court against no fewer than 23 records requests.
“His track record is abysmal,” said Jennifer Borg, general counsel for North Jersey Media Group, which publishes The Record and has sued the state for documents nine times over the past two years.
Other newspapers have had no better time with the chief executive. “On transparency, he’s by far the worst governor in my 25 years covering state government, no contest,” said Tom Moran, editorial page editor of The Star-Ledger. “It is a reflex for them to deny the public information. The governor hasn’t come into an editorial board at the Ledger, the state’s largest paper, in five years.”
Christie has also been less than forthcoming on how his office has handled billions of dollars in relief funds for Superstorm Sandy, which demolished much of the state’s scenic coastline, including the famous Asbury Park boardwalk, and destroyed hundreds of homes. In December 2013, for example, the state quietly terminated its $68 million contract with a politically connected firm, hired to administer $700 million in Sandy relief aid. Months later, a state contract manager said the firm had performed poorly and that files were missing or incomplete.
Murray, the Christie spokesman, said the governor has pushed to strengthen oversight of relief funds through several measures, including the creation of an “integrity monitor,” which has published details of the spending. Last year, the Democratic Sen. President Steve Sweeney called the monitor’s reports inadequate.
Many records have been released. And some of them have led to even more trouble for Christie, who’s now struggling to gain traction in his run for president.
In February, The New York Times, drawing on a range of public documents, including some released as part of a lawsuit brought by The Record, detailed a pattern of luxurious, all-expense-paid trips that Christie had taken over the past few years.
In 2012, the governor flew to Israel for a trade mission aboard the private jet of casino-magnate Sheldon Adelson. Christie’s family and several aides came along for the ride, and while they were there ran up a hotel tab during a jaunt to Jordan that totaled some $30,000, paid for by the country’s King Abdullah II, according to the Times.
The following year, taxpayers footed a bill of more than $11,500 for Christie, his wife and two staff members to attend the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
All of this came to light just one month after the governor was seen celebrating with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones as the two watched a game together in his Texas stadium. Christie’s office soon admitted that Jones covered all expenses.
Christie has defended the trips, saying they were merely gifts from personal friends. While an executive order that predates his administration generally prohibits gifts to the governor, it includes an exemption if the gift comes from a friend. Christie also argued that because the presents came from friends, he did not need to disclose them. That assertion was backed in May by an opinion from the attorney general’s office, which came at the request of the State Ethics Commission after lawmakers and advocacy groups called for an inquiry.
“The long history of abuse and violations among top officials in [New Jersey] is compelling evidence of the need for all gifts to be banned, all expenditures and reimbursements to be revealed precisely,” Josh Margolin, a former statehouse reporter who now works for ABC News, said in an email. Margolin also questioned whether the Ethics Commission, which was once lauded as one of the nation’s strongest and most independent, has lost some of its bite.
In fact, a growing chorus of journalists and academics and former Ethics Commission members has been raising concerns that Christie has undermined the panel’s independence and autonomy in recent years. In January 2014, the panel, which appoints its own executive director, accepted Christie’s recommendation that it select one of his longtime aides, who served as the governor’s legal counsel, to run the commission.
Christie’s spokesman has rejected suggestions that the governor exerted any undue influence on the commission, noting that the commission unanimously approved the executive director.
Before Christie took office, the commission had a tradition of appointing independent, nonpartisan executive directors, said William E. Schluter, a former Republican state senator who was the legislature’s leading ethics advocate and served as the commission’s vice chairman from 2010-2013.
Schluter was the sole dissenting vote in early 2011 when the commission’s executive director was forced out and replaced by an employee of the governor’s office. When Schluter’s term expired in 2013, Christie did not reappoint him.
This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. It is part of State Integrity 2015. How do each state’s laws and practices deter corruption, promote transparency and enforce accountability? Click here to read more stories in this investigation.