Christie’s henchmen lawyer up

Will Wildstein or Baroni “cooperate” with the government against Chris Christie?

The Chris Christie/Ft. Lee/George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal is now moving a warp speed. Now we’ve taken what may be the fatal next step, from “overblown,” “mistakes were made,” and “turning the page” – all markers of a simple scandal – to the point where the people directly implicated decide whether to save their own skins by selling out their bosses.

The Wall Street Journal reports that both David Wildstein and Bill Baroni have now “lawyered up.” If you’re Christie, that’s bad. The Journal also reports that they’ve both hired criminal defense lawyers. If you’re Christie, that’s worse.

Wildstein’s lawyer’s previous clients include Sharpe James, the appallingly corrupt Mayor of Newark replaced by Cory Booker; James wound up spending 18 months in a federal penitentiary. If you’re Christie, that’s just awful; Wildstein didn’t hire a top corruption-defense lawyer just to advise him on how to respond to subpoenas. He clearly thinks he’s in deep doo-doo, and probably in deep Federal doo-doo at that.

But the worst news – if you’re Christie – is that Baroni’s lawyer is a former Assistrant U.S. Attorney in New Jersey named Michael Himmel.

In 2009, Mr. Himmel also represented Solomon Dwek, a former real estate investor who pleaded guilty to bank fraud and money laundering charges. Mr. Dwek became an FBI informant in a case brought by Mr. Christie that implicated dozens of elected officials in a widespread corruption investigation.

So not only does Baroni think he needs serious criminal defense, he’s hired someone with a history of making deals in which his client gets a break in return for implicating everyone else in sight. (The technical term is “cooperation.”) And the only person above Baroni in the pecking order – the only one Baroni can hope to save himself by snitching on – is Gov. Soprano himself.

Now, it’s possible I’m being too optimistic about this. Perhaps Himmel is a Christie loyalist, who will be working to protect his ex-boss as well as his nominal client. But on the surface, this looks about as bad for Christie – which is to say, about as good for the future of the American Republic – as it possibly could.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

37 thoughts on “Christie’s henchmen lawyer up”

  1. OK. Not just one underling getting ready to roll on Christie, but two. And there is no one else to roll on. They’ll each be competing to dish it out. Isn’t the free market wonderful?

      1. Maybe not. Don’t forget that the problem requires the threat of a guaranteed conviction if one or both cooperate. I don’t think there’s a creditable threat even of prosecution, let alone a near certainty of conviction.

        Nobody seems to be particularly out to get Christie. He seems to have built a powerful and dangerous machine in a very short amount of time. I don’t see anyone in federal law enforcement having the balls to play hardball with a thug like Christie and that’s what it would take. .

        1. ” I don’t see anyone in federal law enforcement having the balls to play hardball with a thug like Christie and that’s what it would take. .”

          Would federal prosecutors go after a former prosecutor? Does Christie have dirt on any federal judges?

          1. In my experience, nobody likes to hunt their own kind but, yes, the DOJ’s Public Integrity Section does prosecute current and former prosecutors. They’ve had some very high profile cases fall apart in recent years so they might be more than a bit gun-shy. Also, during the GW Bush administration the section (like much of the DOJ) was infiltrated by Republican political operatives so it’s difficult to know how they will approach this question. My guess at this point is that they’ll wait and see if the proposed Congressional investigation gets going and won’t open an investigation without a referral from Congress or the FBI.

            I don’t know anything about NJ and its politics but generally speaking US attorneys are not just political appointees, they are almost always people with very deep ties to local politics. Again, Bush famously appointed a lot of highly political US attorneys who polluted the system but I have no idea about the situation in the NJ office. Obviously, I have a very deep prejudice again US attorneys that dates from when the organized crime strike forces were disbanded so that individual US attorney could squash politically embarrassing investigations. Like a lot of local prosecutors who were looking for help from the federal justice system, I was on the losing side of that argument and it left me with a substantial distrust of local USA’s.

          2. Arguably, a crime was committed under N.J. Law (2C:33-14 – Interference with transportation –2C:33-14. a. Interference with Transportation. A person is guilty of interference with transportation if the person purposely or knowingly:


            (5)unlawfully disrupts, delays or prevents the operation of any vehicle, including, but not limited to, a bus, light rail vehicle, railroad locomotive, train, bus, jitney, trolley, subway, airplane or any other facility of transportation. The term “unlawfully disrupts, delays or prevents the operation of” does not include non-violent conduct growing out of a labor dispute as defined in N.J.S.2A:15-58;

            I haven’t been able to determine any federal statute that may have been violated. Unlike, say, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, which is a federal facility, the Assimilative Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C. § 13 does not come into play.

  2. It’s not good news for Christie. But I’m not sure it is so bad. There is plenty of reason for Wildstein and Baroni to play along with Christie. People naturally lawyer up when they’re in legal trouble, no matter what their plan. Even Mafiosi lawyer up–and keep omertà!

    As a Newark resident, I would like to correct Mark on one misapprehension: that Sharpe James was “appallingly corrupt.” Not so. James was corrupt; no doubt about it. But that’s the way the game is played in the Garden State, unless you’re one of the few politicians with access to Wall Street money–which introduces its own form of corruption. (Cory Booker, I’m thinking of you.) Camden is “appallingly corrupt”–public office is nothing but a means to private enrichment. Newark is Jersey corrupt–the public officials pretty much do their jobs, and skim a bit off the top, mostly to keep their political machine in operation.

    It’s like the old joke about the Asian and African dictator, at the dictator’s conference. They both showed each other photos of their magnificent palaces. The Asian dictator’s palace was in the middle of thriving city; the African dictator’s palace was in the middle of impoverished nowhere. They asked each other how they did it. The Asian dictator said: “I skim 5% off of every contract.” The African dictator said: “That’s nothing; I skim 100% off of every contract.”

    Newark politicians–who tend to get indicted eventually–are firmly in the 5% camp.

    1. You can go back to one of Tweed’s henchmen for the line about “honest graft” — which is essentially where you take a kickback for awarding the contract but make sure the work gets done. The problem with honest graft is that it’s so easy to slide over from there into the dishonest kind.

      1. And from what I heard of Chicago, in the neighborhoods with clout or who were on the machine’s side, it was honest graft. Everywhere else, it was dishonest graft – most of the work simply didn’t get done, because f*ck them.

  3. Tags: Baroni, Christie, cooperating witness, Ft. Lee, lawyering up, Wildstein

    No Bully schadenfreude tag?

  4. Please fill me in–we have gotten to “overblown,” but have we arrived yet at “politically motivated”? Is that not the next step?

  5. I’d quibble with the idea that Christie is the only person left to go after here, as if Baroni were his number two guy. Baroni is his top guy at the Port Authority, but that makes him nothing more than a political patronage recipient. Plenty of real power brokers in between Baroni and Christie, both in the govt and in Christie’s political operation. Of course, I dearly hope this goes all the way to the top, but there’s a long way to go yet.

  6. MK wrote: Now, it’s possible I’m being too optimistic about this.

    ya think?
    but at least you are not as over-the-top as maddow on this topic.

    1. Over-the-top? Hardly. Maddow at least was willing to make editorial judgments about the right and wrong of what happened to the public over a four day period unlike other reporters(?) who adhered strictly to the so-called fairness doctrine as practiced by the main stream media.

  7. While all this certainly sounds sleazy, I’m a little surprised there’s talk of criminal liability.

    What crimes might Christie’s subordinates have committed? What crime might Christie himself be guilty of? Offhand, this looks more like an extreme version of not fixing potholes on your enemy’s street.

      1. Not a federal crime. I think it has to be a federal crime because I suspect that Christie has everybody in NJ who could prosecute him bought or nobbled. Probably we could be looking at a Hobbs Act on similar theory to how feds got Blago. The problem is that so far there’s nothing that links (a) to Christie himself and (b) any sort of quid-pro-quot in return for political support or that support “extorted” by Christie. I have no idea whether these guys can finger Christie. I would assume not because I’m sure that like the Corleone Family, the Christie organization has a lot of buffers.

    1. There are stated procedures for closing down Port Authority infrastructure that have the force of law, including how the decision is made and requirements for notification. The reports indicate that these laws were broken in arranging for the closure of the lanes from the GWB.

      1. Again, I am operating on the assumption that nobody in NJ law enforcement including a US attorney is going to prosecute their boss. So, it will be a federal prosecution (presumably run out of the Public Integrity Section) or nothing at all. The question for a Hobbs Act prosecution would be whether shutting down the lanes to punish the people of a particular city for refusing to pay protection (here in the form of political support rather than cold cash) is something that deprived the citizens of honest government similar to how they got Blago. It isn’t clear to me either that violating these laws would subject anyone to criminal prosecution or support a federal Hobbs Act prosecution.

    2. I would also wonder about legal issues like indifference to risk as well as broader constitutional questions having to do with messing around with interstate commerce. Getting them for violating the Port Authority’s rules/regs would just be the tip of the iceberg.

    3. Again, with the caveats I’ve mentioned in mind, the most likely crime would be a violation of the Hobbs Act and related “good government” statutes similar to those committed by Blago. Many of the same issues would be involved and you could look at that prosecution as a template.

  8. “Wildstein’s lawyer’s previous clients include Sharpe James, the appallingly corrupt Mayor of Newark replaced by Cory Booker, who wound up spending 18 months in a federal penitentiary.” Yes, I know that it’s grammatically correct since the commas offset the clause “the appallingly corrupt Mayor of Newark replaced by Cory Booker.” But I still had to look twice to make certain that you weren’t saying that Cory Booker “wound up spending 18 months in a federal penitentiary.”

  9. I don’t see how this scandal is going to harm Christie. I don’t think the two thugs are going to finger him, for the simple reason that I don’t think Christie himself ordered the shutdown. And if all we have on Christie is that he appointed a couple of thugs who overstepped their bounds, we’ve got nothing.

  10. All we have?

    The Hunt for Pufferfish |

    The vetters were stunned by the garish controversies lurking in the shadows of his record. There was a 2010 Department of Justice inspector general’s investigation of Christie’s spending patterns in his job prior to the governorship, which criticized him for being “the U.S. attorney who most often exceeded the government [travel expense] rate without adequate justification” and for offering “insufficient, inaccurate, or no justification” for stays at swank hotels like the Four Seasons. There was the fact that Christie worked as a lobbyist on behalf of the Securities Industry Association at a time when Bernie Madoff was a senior SIA official—and sought an exemption from New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act. There was Christie’s decision to steer hefty government contracts to donors and political allies like former Attorney General John Ashcroft, which sparked a congressional hearing. There was a defamation lawsuit brought against Christie arising out of his successful 1994 run to oust an incumbent in a local Garden State race. Then there was Todd Christie, the Governor’s brother, who in 2008 agreed to a settlement of civil charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission in which he acknowledged making “hundreds of trades in which customers had been systematically overcharged.” (Todd also oversaw a family foundation whose activities and purpose raised eyebrows among the vetters.) And all that was on top of a litany of glaring matters that sparked concern on Myers’ team: Christie’s other lobbying clients, his investments overseas, the YouTube clips that helped make him a star but might call into doubt his presidential temperament, and the status of his health.

  11. Do you really want to encourage the right wing, anti-civil liberties, canard that only guilty people have reason to seek out defense attorneys?

  12. I’m a liberal Democrat, so I have that worldview. But I don’t like Democrats making a huge deal over this anymore than I like Republicans
    making a huge deal over the nothingburgers of the IRS, Benghazi! or Vince Foster’s suicide. Can we not get too excited over this for now

    1. You seem to be saying that we don’t know that a scandal occurred, and that there may be a reasonable explanation for the lane closures. (I infer from your “for now” that you do not mean that, if it did occur, it would be no big deal.)

      It’s true that we don’t know that a scandal occurred, but the evidence is strong, and the only way that we’ll find out is if we make enough noise to prevent it from fading from the news without an investigation.

      If an investigation reveals that there was no scandal, then I trust that Democrats will not, like Republicans in the cases of the IRS, Benghazi, and Vince Foster, continue to claim that there was one. It seems that you are the one making the premature charge (against Democrats) rather than those who are making noise about the lane closures.

    2. Using the authority of executive office to retaliate against a political opponent is abuse of power, and very dangerous in a president of a republic. Imagine what such a governor will do if entrusted with the much greater powers of the highest office in the land. It is important to find out if the governor of New Jersey fits the description. It is a big deal if he does.

      1. Ed’s comments lead me to another marvelous paragraph:

        Four nights later, on July 19, Myers’ team put the finishing touches on the Pufferfish vetting dossier. Included was a DVD with some of Christie’s most outlandish or unnerving YouTube hits: his castigating a pro-gay-marriage New Jersey assemblyman as “numb nuts,” his angrily berating a constituent while chasing him down the Seaside Heights boardwalk, brandishing an ice cream cone. But the main event was the 35-page written report titled “Chris Christie memo 71912 FINAL.”

        The guy is an A1 bully.
        Feel free to call me “too human,” but there is something about a fat bully that sends my adrenals into epinephrine overdrive.

        And that’s why I also suggested the tag: bully schadenfreude.
        Crikey, Hollywood was almost built on that meme.

        The Hunt for Pufferfish |

  13. Or you might be saying that, even if a scandal occurred, Christie might have had nothing to do with it.

  14. If Christie isn’t a viable nominee, it just means we are that much closer to having Rand Paul or Ted Cruz be a coin flip away from sitting in the big chair.

    Are you sure that is an improvement?

    1. Neither Baby Doc nor King Whackobird I will ever be president. That’s absolutely clear. I frankly doubt that the Blubbernor will either, but at least his chances aren’t zero.

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