NJ Governor Christie's Secret Meeting With Koch Brothers Causes Political Firestorm
Editor's Note: Brad Friedman wrote two recent stories for Mother Jones about secret Koch tapes that caused a "political firestorm" and he follows up here with what he learned about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's tight relationship with the Kochs.
One of the firestorms my stories have created has led the Democratic Speaker of the NJ Assembly to call Gov. Chris Christie "disgraceful", charge that his comments about her were "outright lies", that he is "not fit to lead the state," and that she is "beginning to wonder if Gov. Christie is mentally deranged." All statements given to local media late today in response to our release of the tapes. Though some local Dems are still wondering if it may be the Speaker, rather than Christie, who is hiding the truth.
As I described in my BRAD BLOG piece linking to Part 2 at MoJo on Wednesday morning, the good citizens of the Garden State (and the whole of the mainstream media along with them) learned only yesterday that their Republican Governor had snuck out of state on June 26th, right after appearing on Meet the Press, jetted across the country to deliver the keynote address at the super-secret, ultra-exclusive gathering of rightwing corporate barons and billionaires --- otherwise known as the Koch Brothers 2011 Summer Seminar --- at a resort near Vail, Colorado, before he then flew back home to NJ that night, and went on to appear on three cable news shows, in studio in Manhattan, the next morning. Nobody ever knew he was gone --- at least until my story broke at MoJo yesterday morning.
Since then, local media and politicos have been combing through our report --- and Tuesday's Part 1 before it, as described later that night. They've apparently, been digging through the full transcript of Christie's remarks, and David Koch's introduction to it, as transcribed from a secret audio recording of the goings on at the Koch fete, which we obtained from an insider source.
More on the Part 2 fallout, including new details, confirmations from officials, ignited firestorms and opened hornets' nests below. But first, I wanted to front page these nice comments from an NPR report by Frank James, which helps to put this entire flurry of Koch muckraking in perspective:
Indeed. And with that, on to the summary of yesterday's noteworthy fallout and, at points, rather mucky, developments...
• 'SMOKING GUN': One of the eyebrow raising revelations from billionaire brother David Koch's introduction to Christie's speech (read it/listen to it in full here), was that he'd privately met with the Governor five months prior to the secret Vail event, "just the two of us — for about two hours." Afterward, Koch says on the tapes, he determined that Christie was "my kind of guy."
A few months later --- exactly one month prior to his appearance in Vail --- Christie would use his executive powers to unilaterally withdraw the state from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI, pronounced "Reggie"), a pact of 10 Northeastern states to develop a cap-and-trade market to curb pollutants, and use the resulting funds to invest in clean energy initiatives. The Kochs, funders of much of the Global Warming Denial Movement and owners of the huge oil and chemical conglomerate Koch Industries, the country's second largest privately held company, hate RGGI and have been working to undermine it through their various foundations and front groups.
AP has picked up on that part of our story and reports that environmentalists view the disclosure of Christie's private meeting with Koch as a "smoking gun."
"This is the smoking gun that shows he's been working with the Koch brothers from the beginning," Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, told AP.
A spokesman for Christie, however, tells the news service that the timing of the events, both the Vail speech and the private NYC meeting with Koch five months prior, were "wholly unconnected" to Christie's decision to pull out of RGGI.
Nonetheless, as AP notes:
AFP, which is also bankrolls the "Tea Party" movement, is not only "backed by the billionaire Koch brothers", but, as AP failed to note, David serves as its Chairman.
• PAID FOR BY THE REPUBLICAN PARTY: The same AP report also offers a brief statement --- in the last sentence of the article --- that may answer, at least in part, the question of whether state resources were used for Christie's secret trip.
That was a question I couldn't get answered myself, as Christie's spokesperson refused to return several of my calls after he had learned that I had questions about Christie's previously undisclosed trip to Colorado.
"The trip was paid for by the New Jersey state Republican Party, GOP spokesman Rick Gorka said," according to AP.
Given the extraordinary security at the event on the night of Christie's speech, however, including what appeared to be a "secret service type" of detail, according to my sources, questions remain as to whether state security or other resources were used during Christie's private political adventure.
If so, it wouldn't be the first time he's been accused of abusing those privileges. In early June, Christie initially refused to reimburse the state, after coming under fire for using a state helicopter to go see his son's high school baseball game (and also a state limo which drove him about 100 yards from the chopper to the grandstands), and then back again after the fifth inning. After coming under public fire he then agreed to pay the state treasurer back for the $2500-an-hour chopper trip, and several other similarly private ventures on the state dole.
Note to corporate media: More digging here, please. It would be remarkable if there were no state security detail accompanying Christie on his trip to Vail.
• 'MENTALLY DERANGED': While Part 1 on Tuesday --- focusing on Charles Koch's fund raising remarks in which he alluded to "Saddam Hussein" and the "Mother of all Wars" in reference to their 2012 hopes of unseating President Obama --- led to a viral media frenzy, I'm delighted to see that yesterday's report focusing on David Koch and Chris Christie has similarly brought out a flurry of coverage in the New Jersey press.
The hottest of the firestorms to develop on Wednesday in NJ, surrounded Christie's remarks at the Koch event concerning backroom efforts to secretly support the Democratic Speaker of the state Assembly, Sheila Oliver, in exchange for her support for a bill that slashed public employee pensions and benefits. The alleged backroom bargain lead to passage of the bill in the Democratic majority legislature --- with only a minority of Dems on board --- just days before Christie snuck out to Vail.
The full audio and transcript of Christie's version of the event is right here. Here's the story in very hot contention, as Christie recounted it to his admirers in Colorado, when he didn't think anyone outside of the event would hear about it:
The pen-ben bill (as it's known in NJ) was ultimately passed in the lower chamber 46 to 32, with 33 Republicans and 13 Dems voting in favor, and the majority of Dems voting against. Local Democrats and unions were furious at both Oliver and Senate President Steve Sweeney for working with Christie to pass the bill.
John Schoonejongen of New Jersey Press Media reported that Christie was asked about his newly revealed version of the story at a press conference in Atlantic City yesterday. The Governor essentially reiterated the version he told in Vail, essentially confirming the veracity of our secret recordings --- in case anybody still had any questions about that --- publicly for the first time in the bargain.
"Christie said the episode underscored what he claims is a recent trend in New Jersey politics when policy 'to get the important things done' wins out over party politics," Schoonejongen reports.
When Chris Megerian at The Star-Ledger covered it (also linking and giving us appropriate credit, thanks) they included the first response to the revelations from Oliver. The paper writes that she said, "in no uncertain terms that the conversation with Christie never happened."
They also quote a number of other Dems who offered different concerns about Christie's account:
Later in the day, Maya Rao and Matt Katz at the Philadelphia Inquirer offered even more fervent denials from Oliver, as reported this way:
Oliver's stinging rebuttal to Christie echoes one by Democratic state Senate President Steve Sweeney who Christie also lauded as a "partner" in negotiations, against the majority of his party. Just days after the Vail event, however, as reported at Mojo today, Christie would reportedly pull the rug out from under Sweeney, leading the former union leader to tell The Star-Ledger that he "wanted to punch him in his head," and that he thought Christie was "a cruel man," "mean-spirited," and "a rotten prick."
Folks who reach across the aisle to work with Christie seem to end up very unhappy. Or at least they tell the press as much.
The Inquirer also cites a Republican Assemblyman who has no recollection of the meeting Christie described:
The entire affair has left a lot of folks in New Jersey not knowing who or what to believe. Earlier yesterday, prior to Oliver's adamant denials, some progressives in the state told The BRAD BLOG they were considering a call for Oliver to step down in light of Christie's story.
Last night, Rosi Efthim, editor of Blue Jersey, one of the state's most influential progressive blogs, filed a very comprehensive report headlined "Christie outs Oliver as his puppet in secret Koch Bros. meeting we weren't supposed to know about".
"No matter which account you believe - if either - what we learned today confirms something is very wrong in the way decisions are made in New Jersey," she writes. "This story may unleash a war of words between the GOP governor and the Democratic Speaker, a breaking of the confederacy between them that has infuriated so many Democrats. ... The possibility that Oliver may now wiggle out from under Christie's thumb and begin to lead as she was elected to do, keeps us from calling [for] her ouster from leadership."
Efthim goes on to charge: "This story is a tangle of conflicting accounts that spotlights so much of what is wrong with New Jersey politics as we witness it. Lies (one's lying, the other telling the truth, or both lie). Back-room decisions conducted by shadow powers. Failure of bi-partisanship. Capitulation to a unitary executive. A meglomaniac governor."
She goes on to list a number of "troubling issues" raised about Christie, such as why he failed to list the Koch event on his calendar, why he concealed the trip, and "What else does he fail to disclose?"
"What is a governor who campaigned on transparency doing speaking at [a] GOP donor event so secretive that audio speakers around the periphery of the venue blasted static to thwart eavesdroppers?"
"What is the quid pro quo between our governor and" the Kochs, she now wonders.
She also sees "troubling issues" raised about Oliver, the state's first African-American woman Speaker whose behavior on the pension and benefits bill had already "diminishe[d] her." Christie's version of the story, however, if true, "would explain her behavior," writes Efthim.
Looks like we've helped to unleash a hornets nest in NJ. Good.