Chris Christie didn’t become governor of New Jersey the easy way. He first had to overcome a gauntlet of scandals in which he was accused of crony capitalism, big spending, and using his government title to get himself out of legal trouble. These stories may be yesterday’s news in New Jersey, but should Christie run for president, he’ll have to fight his old battles all over again on the national stage.
One of the most persistent stories that dogged Christie in his 2009 campaign was his unusual financial relationship with a top aide at his federal prosecutor office, Michele Brown. Christie lent Brown some $46,000, which he says was to help a family friend through a rough patch. But critics argued that the move was an improper conflict of interest heading into a gubernatorial campaign since Brown was in a position to help Christie in a variety of ways. Her job included handling FOIA requests, including those from Governor Corzine’s campaign, for example. And in one instance, she argued to colleagues in favor of wrapping up a major corruption probe before July 1, when Christie’s successor took over the US Attorney position, a move that ensured credit for the case would clearly flow to Christie. Brown resigned shortly after news of the loan broke and, according to the New York Times, she paid off Christie’s loan in October 2010.
It wasn’t the only allegation of conflict of interest that Christie fought off. The then-US Attorney testified before Congress on a series of no-bid monitoring contracts worth millions that he awarded to various law firms. One contract, worth up to $52 million, went to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, Christie’s old mentor. Another former US Attorney chosen for a monitoring contract, David Kelley, had previously investigated Christie’s brother in a stock fraud case in 2005 — he was not indicted while fifteen others were. Top lawyers at another firm he awarded a major contract to later donated about $24,000 to his campaign. Christie said the contracts were awarded on merit and accused Corzine of “character assassination” for raising the issue.
He was also accused of mishandling his office’s budget as US Attorney. In a 2010 report by the DOJ’s Inspector General, he was identified as one of the most profligate federal prosecutors in the country from 2007 to 2009, spending taxpayer cash on luxury hotels that exceeded government rates by as much as $242 a night. Christie said during the 2009 campaign that his office overspent only when there were no alternatives.
Critics also accused the then-US Attorney of using his title to try to get out of trouble with traffic police on multiple occasions. According to a police report, Christie drove the wrong way down a one-way street in 2002 and hit a motorcyclist, who was taken to a hospital. But Christie, who told officers on the scene that he was a US Attorney and had his car towed by the police, was not ticketed for the incident. The motorcyclist later filed a civil suit against Christie that was dismissed, a legal case Christie told reporters in 2009 that he couldn’t recall ever happening. In a separate incident in 2005, Christie was ticketed for three violations by a traffic officer and reportedly also mentioned he was a US Attorney while arguing over the violations.
Christie also came up as a bit player in the US Attorney Scandal that eventually led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. According to a memo, Christie discussed his plans for a possible gubernatorial run with Karl Rove in 2006, a move that critics said ran up against the Hatch Act’s firewall between political and government activities.
Given the pressure Rick Perry is under from rivals over his own allegations of crony capitalism, Christie better have some quick debate comebacks ready should he take the plunge into the presidential field.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.