09 January 2014

This one kinda stumps me

"I worked the cones"
UPDATE: Governor Christie held a very long press conference to try to address the issue, and it made things worse for the Governor.

Christie effectively rebutted the claim that the staged traffic jam was in retaliation for the Fort Lee Mayor's decision not to endorse the Governor. This of course led to a search for a more plausible motive - and a very strong one emerged. (seriously, watch this video if you can.)

The retribution was directed the morning after a contentious decision by Governor over the nomination of judges to the state's supreme court. Specifically Christie withdrew the nomination of a judge after it became clear the nomination would be challenged by Senate Democrats.  The nominee was married to a member of the Governor's staff.  In announcing the decision, Christie referred to NJ Senate Democrats as "animals" and said, "as for the ramifications for that will be going forward... they should have thought about before opening their mouths."

The leader of the New Jersey Senate Democrats?  The state senator from Fort Lee.

As far fetched as it sounds, this seems plausible to me.  After all, we're talking about the spouse of a key member of the Governor's staff.  This one was personal to the Governor and to the people who worked so closely with him and each other.  But since Christie hasn't spoken with his now former deputy chief of staff - the one who sent the email the next morning saying "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" - we get to have another round of stories and investigations on that.

Further, since the Governor was so obviously personally invested in this issue, it's more likely he was aware of more details earlier on. This is going to cost more people their jobs, and possibly their status as non-felons.

Worse still for the Governor, he can't fix this anymore; he can only limit the damage. If everyone shares all the details now, he can limit the story's length and may still get some credit for taking his lumps and leading the way out of it.  If his administration continues down the path they're on, the story will go on indefinitely, and each successive revelation will have an impact far beyond its actual weight.

A smart lawyer once told me, "never assume malicious intent when simple incompetence will do."  However, I'm having a lot of trouble trying to figure out how profoundly incompetent you have to be to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge to get back at a mayor who wouldn't endorse your boss.

If you haven't followed this over the past few months a decent tick-tock is here, and if you're looking for the best coverage I'd look at the Bergen County Record.

If you're not patient enough to read it all, here's the skinny.  Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, was cruising to an overwhelming victory for re-election, and was trying to gain endorsements from Democrats in the state.  One of his targets was the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich.  The mayor decided to endorse his fellow Democrat, Barbara Buono.

In what appears to be an attempt at political retaliation, the Governor's allies allegedly plotted  "traffic problems" in the offending mayor's city.  Governor Christie's political appointee (who is also Christie's friend from high school) running that section of the George Washington Bridge and the Governor's deputy chief of staff decided to close all but one of the traffic lanes in Fort Lee that go to the bridge.  The resulting huge traffic jam came without warning and lasted for days.  Fort Lee children were late for their first day of school.  Police were hampered in their search for a missing 4-year-old child.  Emergency responders were late in reaching at least four people who needed them, including a 91-year-old woman experiencing a heart attack.  That woman died soon after, though it's not known if the delay was completely responsible for that death.

For months the Christie administration has been stonewalling any investigation of this petty stunt.  First they claimed the closures were part of a "traffic study" for which there was no documentation.  Then they sued to avoid subpoenas and resisted releasing any information while they mocked the media for suggesting this was a story in the first place.  They may have broken the law in the process.  The governor himself called New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to protest Cuomo's desire to investigate the situation (New Jersey shares jurisdiction of the bridge's governance with New York). Then documents revealed how "high up" this plot went, and suddenly the Christie administration isn't as cocky as it was a few months ago.

And now we get to play another round of everyone's favorite scandal game, "what did they know and when did they know it."  So here's my best guess, based only on what I've read and my experience in politics and communications.

I don't think Governor Christie new any of the specifics of this ahead of time, and I don't think he "ordered" anything specific.  He gains nothing from that.  I think it's possible (but not probable) that Christie said something general and negative about the mayor, and others may have taken that as a directive to do something.

I don't think Christie's chief of staff, director of communications, or general counsel knew ahead of time. I don't care what your politics are, no lawyer would ever sign off on something like this.

I do think they all knew what was happening well before yesterday.  It's simply too easy to uncover the details.  Anything given to the media via a public records request was retrieved at least a week before it was released and reviewed.  Likely much longer than a week.   There's no doubt in my mind the counsel's office and the chief of staff knew what happened more than a week ago. I think it's likely they knew something was wrong months ago, and they've had all the specifics for at least two or even three weeks.

I think it's possible that some attempt was made to keep the Governor out of the discussions, to give him some semblance of "plausible deniability."   I think we're playing legal ju-jitsu when the Governor said it was the "first time he heard" about this.  He may have just been given one specific detail yesterday, but he's not stupid.

This whole sad episode is an example of what not to do in crisis communications.  It's obvious the Governor's team circled the wagons and adopted an "us vs. them" mentality. It's obvious they decided to conceal as much information as possible for as long as possible, while staying within the technical boundaries of their opinion of existing law.

This posture has led to a drip, drip, drip of details that has turned a mildly embarrassing three-day story into a seriously damaging three-month story.  This posture put the Governor in the evasive position of throwing his staff under the bus instead of demonstrating a strong, "the buck stops here" style of leadership.  It will likely cost thousands in legal fees and invite more scrutiny and more questions - has this ever happened before? Are others involved? And now people are saying Governor Christie's presidential ambitions may be over.

All over a traffic jam in Fort Lee, New Jersey and a meaningless political endorsement.

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