TRENTON — What happened to the cell phone Gov. Chris Christie was using during the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge is becoming a crucial part of the criminal defense of a key Bridgegate defendant.
During a Monday afternoon Statehouse press conference, the governor told reporters it “doesn’t matter to me” if defense attorneys for Bill Baroni, the federally indicted former appointee to the Port Authority, get access to the phone, which Christie said he’d turned over to federal investigators two years ago.
“It’s in the hands of the government,” Christie said. “As far as I know. I don’t know exactly who has it. But I turned it over in response to a request from the government, as I said I would. They have the information, they’re more than welcome to it.”
But the office of U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman has never actually had the phone, according to a spokesman.
“The governor’s telephone was never in the possession of federal authorities,” wrote Matthew Reilly, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in an email to NJ Advance Media on Monday.
“As is typical in grand jury investigations, where an institution is represented by outside counsel, those lawyers review records, including those contained on mobile phones and computers, to identify and provide material that is responsive to subpoenas. That procedure was followed in this case.”
Baroni, Christie’s former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is under federal indictment on nine counts of conspiracy, fraud and other charges related to the improper lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in 2013.
Last week, Baroni’s lawyer Michael Baldassare subpoenaed the governor’s Bridgegate smartphone, which was among the items reviewed by Christie administration’s lawyers at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher to prepare a report that exonerated the governor of any wrongdoing in the lane closures.
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher was paid $8 million to investigate if Christie played a part in the lane closures, ultimately finding that he “played no role” in the Bridgegate scandal.
Hours after Baldassare filed a formal request seeking access to the governor’s cell phone last week, Gibson, Dunn filed a motion to quash his subpoena.
“Last Thursday, Gibson Dunn made the unbelievable claim that the prosecutors never even asked for the governor’s phone,” said Baldassare. “Based on what the governor said today, we expect Gibson Dunn to give up the phone and stop trying to keep it hidden.”
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher principal Randy Mastro, a former federal prosecutor who authored the firm’s report exonerating the governor, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
On Monday, Chrisite described the dispute over access to the phone “a fight between prosecutors and defense attorneys.”
“Having been U.S. Attorney, I wouldn’t appreciate it if a politician got into that fight,” said Christie, who was the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey from 2002 through 2009. “And you can be damn sure I’m not going to. It’s between them and the U.S. Attorney.”
Brian Murray, a spokesman for the office of the governor, said in an email that “The governor’s phone was reviewed by lawyers and any documents responsive to any of the government’s several subpoenas were already produced to the government.”
The attorneys are seeking a hearing on June 6 to argue the question before U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton.
Last December, Wigenton issued a ruling sharply criticizing Gibson, Dunn for intentionally failing to preserve documentation of the more than 70 interviews it conducted in preparing its Bridgegate report.
“The taxpayers of the State of New Jersey paid [Gibson Dunn] millions of dollars to conduct a transparent and thorough investigation. What they got instead was opacity and gamesmanship,” Wigenton wrote. “They deserve better.”