On Thursday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fired a top aide who ordered lane closures that caused a weeklong traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge and in nearby Fort Lee. Christie also forced his former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, who was aware of the lane closure plans, to drop out of the running to chair the New Jersey Republican Party, and told Stepien to cancel a lucrative contract with the Republican Governors Association, which Christie chairs.
More MoJo coverage of Chris Christie's bridge scandal
In a press conference Thursday morning, Christie apologized to the people of Fort Lee and New Jersey and to the state Legislature for the lane closures. He said that his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, "lied to me" about her role in the traffic mess, while insisting that he knew nothing about the decision to cause the traffic jam. "I am heartbroken that someone that I permitted to be in that circle of trust for the last five years betrayed my trust," Christie said.
Emails and text messages released Tuesday strongly suggest that Kelly, the senior Christie aide, ordered the traffic debacle as political retribution against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who had declined to endorse Christie in his 2013 gubernatorial race. "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Kelly wrote to David Wildstein, a Port Authority official who resigned in the wake of the traffic jam.
Christie has denied that he personally made the call to close the bridge lanes that caused the traffic jam. "I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge," he said on Wednesday.
At his press conference, Christie reiterated that he had no role in the bridge debacle and that he first learned about it Wednesday after his morning workout. "I was blindsided yesterday morning," he said. "I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution, and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here." But he added that the responsibility for the scandal is his. "Ultimately, I am responsible for what happens on my watch, the good and the bad, and when mistakes are made, I have to own up to them and take the action that I believe is necessary to remediate them."
In response to critics who said Christie sent the tone of his administration, he said the bridge scandal was "the exception, not the rule." He said he would visit the borough of Fort Lee to apologize for the bridge scandal, and he pledged to "work cooperatively" with state and federal investigations into the scandal.
Days before Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker's June 2012 recall election, two TV ads ran on stations statewide. Paid for by a group called the Coalition for American Values (CAV), the ads attacked the very notion of holding a recall election (even though it's in the state constitution) and featured supposed Wisconsin citizens speaking out against the recall. "I didn't vote for Scott Walker, but I'm definitely against the recall," one man says. In another ad, the narrator says, "Recall isn't the Wisconsin way...End the recall madness. Vote for Scott Walker June 5th."
CAV put $400,000 behind those ads, which stoked a sense of unease about the recall among Wisconsin voters. Walker coasted to a seven-point victory. Exit polls strongly suggested that CAV's ads played a part in the governor's win. Yet the mystery surrounding the Coalition for American Values persisted. The group never disclosed how much it spent, how much it raised, or who funded it.
Until now. As first reported by the left-leaning Center for Media and Democracy, new tax filings reveal that the main source of CAV's funding was the Center to Protect Patient Rights, an Arizona nonprofit that gave CAV $510,000 in 2012. CPPR is a linchpin in a network of nonprofit groups Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialists, use to shuffle money around the country while keeping donors anonymous. California's Fair Political Practices Commission identified the group as "the key nonprofit in the Koch Brothers' dark money network of nonprofit corporations," and hit the group and a related nonprofit with a $1 million fine for failing to disclose donations made during the 2012 election season. All told, CPPR doled out $156 million in dark money in 2011 and 2012, a sizable chunk of the $407 million moved by the Kochs' network of nonprofit groups.
Run by a onetime Koch operative named Sean Noble, CPPR is expected to play less of a role in the Koch network going forward. The California investigation—which revealed the identities of hundreds of previously secret donors and private marketing material used by Republican operatives—brought unwanted scrutiny to the Kochs and their conservative and libertarian allies. An October 2012 Huffington Post story reported that Noble, the former "the wizard behind the screen" for the Kochs, had fallen out of favor. "Noble has had his wings clipped," one Republican operative told HuffPost.
The Center for Media and Democracy says it has filed a formal complaint with Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board alleging that the Coalition for American Values violated state campaign finance laws by not disclosing its CPPR funding. A message left at the phone number listed on CAV's website was not returned.
The 2014 election season means it's reckoning time for a trio of high-profile Republican governors elected four years ago at the height of the tea party movement. GOP governors in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio ran on ambitious pledges to create jobs and jump-start their states' economies. To meet those goals, score political points, and set themselves up for reelection, they launched their own versions of the dark-money nonprofit groups used by the Koch brothers' political network and the pro-Obama Organizing for Action. Now, these governors are learning that their dark-money tactics could become an election year liability.
JobsOhio has faced charges of political favoritism and pay-to-play. Its board of directors, hand-picked by Kasich, includes multiple donors to Kasich's campaigns and employees of Kasich donors. The Ohio Ethics Commission also found that 9 of the 22 JobsOhio officials required to file financial disclosure statements in 2011 and 2012—including six of its nine board members—had potential financial conflicts such as holding financial stakes in companies that had received incentives from JobsOhio. Matt Englehart, a spokesman for JobsOhio, says the group's conflict of interest policies are "effective," that JobsOhio holds board members and staffers to "a high level of ethical conduct," and that the group is "held to a high level of accountability and reporting to what we do."
In practice, the NERD Fund has acted as the Snyder administration's private piggy bank, paying for whatever the governor and his team want. For months, unbeknownst to the public, it paid the salary of Richard Baird, a top aide to Snyder who nonetheless had a government phone number, and a .gov email address. The NERD Fund also paid for an expensive condo for Kevyn Orr, the white-collar lawyer hand-picked by Snyder to be Detroit's all-powerful, unelected emergency manager. The NERD Fund did not willingly disclose this: Only after pressure from reporters and a lawsuit filed in state district court by a Detroit area activist did the nonprofit divulge that it was paying Baird and Orr.
The NERD Fund, like Kasich's JobsOhio, has faced pay-to-play questions. The nonprofit's sole publicly known donor is the pharmacy chain CVS Caremark, which voluntarily disclosed a $1,000 donation made in 2012. (The NERD Fund raised nearly $1.7 million in 2011 and 2012.) The next year, CVS reportedly landed a $60 million pharmacy contract from the Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson called the deal "pay-to-play politics," but a Snyder spokesman said it was a "massive stretch" to connect the CVS donation to the contract. (Snyder, for his part, testified under oath that he personally didn't know who donated to the NERD Fund.) A CVS spokeswoman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
"[WEDC] really seems to be a rat hole where a lot of money is being dumped down into it," says Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Rounding out the Midwestern trifecta is Gov. Scott Walker's shadowy jobs group. Soon after talking office, Walker ditched the state commerce department and replaced it with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a private nonprofit created to help Walker fulfill a key campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs by 2015.
Three years later, the WEDC is a scandal-plagued mess, and Walker is 145,000 jobs short of his goal with a year to go in his first term. The questions dogging the WEDC, whose board Walker chairs, aren't where its money comes from—it's almost all taxpayer funds—but how the nonprofit spends it. The WEDC has given out hundreds of million in loans, tax credits, grants, and other incentives; recipients have in turn donated nearly $400,000 to Walker's campaign account, according to an analysis by the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now.
Exempt from open records requests relating to financial matters, the WEDC has been criticized by state auditors for failing to keep records on a host of issues—how WEDC selects incentive recipients, how that incentive money is ultimately spent, and whether WEDC grants actually create jobs. "It really seems to be a rat hole where a lot of money is being dumped down into it and they can't account for where a lot of that money has even gone," says Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
In 2011 and 2012, the committee spent more than $16 million lobbying on Cuomo's behalf, the most of any organization. In the summer of 2012, the New York Times revealed that gambling interests gave $2 million to the committee at the same time Cuomo launched a full-throated push for opening private casinos in New York state. The governor has denied any connection between the donations and his position, but the appearance alone, watchdogs said, raised serious questions about influence peddling.
For all of these governors, dark-money connections have proved a headache, if not a political liability. Kasich's Democratic challenger, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, has requested an ethics review of JobsOhio. Snyder's opponent, ex-congressman Mark Schauer, has demanded the NERD Fund release its full donor list. (As a state lawmaker, Schauer had his own, much smaller nonprofit.) Several of these nonprofits have bowed to political pressure. The Committee to Save New York shut its doors after Cuomo signed new disclosure rules into law. In Michigan, Snyder eventually put Richard Baird on the state payroll, and in October, he said the NERD Fund would be shuttered, with a spokeswoman calling it an "unnecessary distraction."
Good-government types hoping for some retroactive transparency are, however, out of luck. Even as the Committee to Save New York and the NERD Fund disappear, the two groups said their donors would now and always remain secret.
This article is being updated as news breaks. Click here for the latest.
Internal emails released Wednesday strongly suggest that a top aide to New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie orchestrated massive traffic problems in Fort Lee, New Jersey, last fall as an act of political retribution against the city's Democratic mayor. For months, Christie and his administration have denied allegations that road closures in Fort Lee were politically motivated. The emails, released as part of an investigation by Democratic state legislators, could spiral into a major political scandal for Christie, a possible 2016 presidential candidate. Here's what you need to know.
How'd this begin? In mid-September, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey unexpectedly closed two access lanes on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River and serves as a major commuter route between the two states. A massive, weeklong traffic jam ensued, clogging the streets of nearby Fort Lee.
Cops and lawmakers in Fort Lee said they were given no warning about the decision to close the lanes, which delayed school buses, first responders, and commuters bound for New York City. The Port Authority justified its decision by saying it was conducting a "traffic study."
Why is this political? Soon after the traffic jam, rumors emerged that the Port Authority closed the bridge lanes as political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who endorsed Gov. Chris Christie's opponent in the 2013 gubernatorial campaign. As news outlets and New Jersey Democrats dug deeper into the circumstances of the bridge incident, they eventually connected the lane closures to two Port Authority officials with close ties to Christie: Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director of the agency, and David Wildstein, its director of interstate capital projects. Baroni and Wildstein have since resigned, and both men have retained criminal defense attorneys.
All along, the Christie administration had denied any connection to the decision to close the bridge lanes. In September, a Christie spokesman called the retribution claim "crazy." Christie told reporters at a December press conference that the Fort Lee traffic snarl was "absolutely, unequivocally not" a result of political score-settling.
Sanders, in his letter to the NSA, defined spying as collecting lawmakers' phone metadata (information on phone numbers called, where calls are made to and from, how long the call lasts), information about website and email traffic, and "any other data from a third party not made available to the general public in the regular course of business." As the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have revealed, the NSA has hoovered up personal information on just about everyone else on the planet—elected leaders of foreign countries, diplomats, allies and enemies overseas, and millions of American citizens. Although none of the Snowden documents published thus far mention NSA spying on American elected officials, it was only a matter of time before an angry member of Congress asked if Capitol Hill, too, had been a focus of the agency's surveillance.
The NSA quickly responded to Sanders' letter, and as the Guardian reports, it includes no denial of spying on members of Congress. Here's the statement:
NSA's authorities to collect signals intelligence data include procedures that protect the privacy of US persons. Such protections are built into and cut across the entire process. Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all US persons. NSA is fully committed to transparency with Congress. Our interaction with Congress has been extensive both before and since the media disclosures began last June.
We are reviewing Senator Sanders's letter now, and we will continue to work to ensure that all members of Congress, including Senator Sanders, have information about NSA's mission, authorities, and programs to fully inform the discharge of their duties."
In other words, we treat members of Congress like all other American citizens. Whom the NSA spies on by collecting vast stores of metadata on phone calls and other communications. A fact that James Clapper, the top intelligence official in Obama's cabinet, lied about under oath before Congress last year.
Based on the NSA's statement, the agency apepars to be preparing a fuller response to Sanders' letter. Perhaps that might put to rest any worries about domestic spying on our nation's most powerful lawmakers. If it doesn't, and if concerns about spying on Congress fester, we might see the House or Senate haul Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, back to Capitol Hill to testify. That'll make for exciting daytime television.