Indictments in the controversial closing of the George Washington Bridge in the fall of 2013 could come next week, PolitickerNJ reported on Tuesday, citing anonymous sources close to the investigation.
Aides close to N.J. Governor and ex officio University trustee ChrisChristie are alleged to have orchestrated traffic problems in the so-called Bridgegate scandalas political retribution before Christie's reelection for governor.
Matt Riley, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of New Jersey declined to comment. Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for the New Jersey Governor's Office, also declined to comment.
The suspected motivation behind the retribution was either for a mayor's refusal to endorse Christie's reelection bid or for a state senator's opposition to Christie'snominee for the state supreme court. Christie's role in the affair remains unclear, although he has fired the aides allegedly involved and denied any wrongdoing on his part.
The PolitickerNJ report came on a day when Christie arrived in New Hampshire, a popular place to visit for potential presidential candidates.
The narrative around Bridgegate has contributed further to a problem that Christie would already have to deal with, which is New Jersey's reputation for political corruption, according to Peter Woolley, a politics professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
"He promised to fight corruption in New Jersey, so that people he appointed and he knows very well ... would be indicted would really reflect very, very poorly on him, [and] not only in New Jersey," Woolley said. "Nationally, that's just going to be a huge drag for audiences in Iowa, in New Hampshire, and it's going to be a huge drag for donors."
Even if no one gets indicted, Bridgegate is not going to disappear from the popular perception of Christie, Woolley said, adding that prosecutors are only going to bring indictments if they think their case is very strong.
"Only a defense lawyer can size up his client's chance for a favorable outcome, but if the question is, 'How strong are the indictments?', these guys don't fool around," Woolley said. "It's hard to pry information out of U.S. Attorneys' offices. ... Often what happens is when U.S. Attorneys investigate things, they find things they weren't really looking for."
During the investigation of N.J. Senator Robert Menendez,investigators' attention was called to Menendez for one allegation, but years later, the charges were significantly different than the original allegation, Woolley noted.
Christie's apparent campaigning in New Hampshire on Tuesday and Wednesday might be a way of trying to "get ahead of the news" surrounding the indictments, Wilson School lecturer Stanley Katz said.
"He's certainly going to keep pushing through, but I don't think he's going to get anywhere," Katz said, adding Christie appears to believe he can talk his way out of any problem. "He's going to be the last to know it. ... If he is indicted, then it's all over. I don't think he's a viable candidate now, but then he's certainly not a viable candidate in that case. Even without this, I think his positioning to the base of the Republican Party is so dubious it's ridiculous."
Bridgegate is just one of many problems that Christie's public image faces, according to Krista Jenkins, executive director of the PublicMind poll at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
A poll on Tuesday by Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics estimated that 69 percent of New Jersey voters do not think Christie would make a good president.
"Obviously there's a lot of incumbent fatigue, too. He's a two-term governor," Jenkins said, adding that the public also casts blame on other leaders and the system in general for public problems. "There's a series of problems that have yet to be addressed in a substantive way, ... but then there's the compounding fact that he's gone a lot. He's out of the state a lot."
She added that while it is easy to focus on Christie specifically, Democratic governors and the mostly Democratic state legislature have promoted numerous policy plans over the years that have contributed to problems like inadequate funding for public pensions. Nonetheless, Jenkins' group's polls have found that Christie's poll numbers regarding how well he has dealt with specific policy issues have not gotten better on any issue over the course of his administration, she said.
"His post-[Hurricane Sandy] numbers were unsustainable," Jenkins said. "No one thought he was going to be able to maintain those numbers throughout his administration. ... I still think he has a chance."
Even so, there was a significant and sustained drop in Christie's polling numbers when Bridgegate first garnered major national attention, Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said. After that, there was a period of stabilization, but Christie's numbers have since dropped again, he noted.
"[This was] mainly because he was out of state so much," Murray said. "People were starting to wonder whether he was on the job."
The supposed indictments could be about anything, Murray added, noting that charges against aides with only a tangential relationship to the original Bridgegate event would have much less of an impact than charges levied directly against Christie himself.
Despite Christie's recent low poll numbers, there is still room for his ratings to go significantly lower, Murray said, explaining that past governors have seen approval rating percentages in the 20s and 30s, while Christie's approval ratings are still in the 40s.
"If there's nothing beyond what the public has already heard, then there will certainly be a slight dip in his ratings, because an indictment around you is never good, ... but that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be fatal," Murray said. "It really does depend on the information that comes out of these indictments."
Christie's constituents have largely been judging him on his policy record so far, while the nation as a whole has still been evaluating him on his image, Murray added, noting that Christie is one of the least liked Republican candidates by Republican voters. Republican voters largely don't trust him ideologically, while New Jersey voters are concerned about his absence from the state recently, he explained.
Christie has signed some gun control legislation, appointed a Muslim judge and varied his stance on the Common Core, which has made some Republican voters leery of Christie, Murray added.
"If you look at the accomplishments he tells, almost all of them happened in the first 18 months in office," Murray said. "He's been coasting on that since then, and that is something that could come back to bite him later."
Even if the news for Christie is better than expected, the situation will likely cause him problems with national fundraising, Tom Byrne '76, former chairman of the New Jersey Democratic Party, said.
"That's the groundwork that you have to lay at this stage," Byrne said.
In terms of Christie's policy, the failure of revenues to materialize predicted in 2011 that would have stabilized the state's pension system was disappointing, said Byrne, who was appointed by Christie to the New Jersey State Investment Council.
While the economy could have been weaker than expected, the sources of revenue identified may not have been specific enough, Byrne added, noting that a more recently released report was put together by the country's best actuaries and might have a better chance at success.
'The low-hanging fruit has already been achieved when needed," Byrne said. "Number one, public employees get more generous benefits than people who work for Fortune 100 companies. ... The other reform involves freezing the current pension plan and going to a hybrid plan. Those two steps embody clearly identified savings that ensure that already accrued benefits get paid."
The investigation into Bridgegate may have also affected Christie's ability to work with the state General Assembly, Byrne noted, adding that he is still on fairly good terms with state Senate Democrats.
"There's definitely a difference in the tenor of the two houses of the legislature," Byrne said.