By Cathy Burke
Embattled Gov. Chris Christie reportedly showed a tendency to make unusual deals that would sometimes boomerang when he was a New Jersey federal prosecutor of corruption and white-collar crime.
In a report in the Washington Post on Monday, the Republican governor — now under fire for a purportedly political revenge-fueled September closure of traffic lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge — struck seven out-of-court deals with big companies while a federal prosecutor that worried Justice Department officials during the administration of President George W. Bush.
In particular, Christie, who was appointed a prosecutor in 2002, often appointed political allies and supporters as monitors in settlements with companies that would, in some cases, pay millions of dollars in fees to the monitors, The Post reported.
One group of cases drew particular fire, The Post reported. They involved five orthopedic makers who paid consulting fees to surgeons who used their devices, a practice prosecutors characterized as kickbacks.
Among the monitors chosen to watch the settlements' progress was former state attorney general and current Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Chairman David Samson, whom Christie, later as governor, appointed to the bistate agency, The Post reported.
Another Christie-appointed monitor was former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who had been Christie's boss. The fee for Ashcroft’s firm to oversee one company was an estimated $28 million to $52 million for 18 months of work.
Three former senior agency officials told The Post that the fees to Ashcroft’s firm made it look like the Justice Department was making its friends rich.
Another out-of-court deal prosecutor Christie made involved drugmaker Bristol-Myers Squibb. In exchange for not charging the company with securities fraud, Christie’s office required the drugmaker, in part, to fund a professorship at Seton Hall University’s law school, Christie's alma mater, The Post reported.
The $5 million gift was used by the school for its new center on business ethics, but made Justice Department officials uneasy, The Post reported.
“People torquing around folks for their favorite charity?” said one former senior Justice official, recalling agency leaders’ reactions. “We’re just not going to do this. It will corrode our institutional credibility. It’s way too easy to have that look really bad, really quick.”
Justice Department officials ultimately established new rules limiting prosecutors’ discretion in reaching such agreements.
“It was something you wanted to tamp out before every U.S. attorney in America built a new summer camp,” one former Justice official told The Post. “It needed to be nipped in the bud.”
Over two decades, U.S. attorneys have signed about 300 of these agreements, most of them after 2000, Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, told The Post.
“A handful of New Jersey cases threw the project of monitorships into serious jeopardy,” Garrett told The Post.
“They made useful changes to the guidelines because of the New Jersey cases. It was because of how [Christie] was using them.”
A Christie spokesman told The Post that the kind of settlements Christie negotiated as a prosecutor have been an accepted practice for years, and were used as a tool to “hold corporations accountable without punishing innocent employees who were not at fault in any corporate wrongdoing.”
“They continue to be used today by prosecutors across the country, and remain highly praised by the Obama administration for exactly that reason,” spokesman Kevin Roberts said.
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