That Chris Christie might be under investigation for some sort of wrongdoing is not exactly hard to believe. He is, firstly, governor of New Jersey—a veritable swamp of corruption where the chances of an elected official ending up in prison increase with every hour they spend in office.
And in the 13 months since the mysterious lane closures on the George Washington Bridge became the scandal known as Bridgegate, it has felt like almost every day, there is a new allegation hurled in his direction: He threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy recovery funds from the mayor of Hoboken unless she did what he wanted; he illegally used $1.8 billion intended for a tunnel to renovate a roadway; his tour rider puts Mariah Carey’s to shame.
Given that, when it was reported Thursday by David Sirota of The International Business Times that Christie’s administration was again being prodded by the feds, the news was largely met with a shrug.
“Federal law enforcement officials have launched a criminal investigation of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, pursuing allegations that the governor’s staff broke the law when they quashed grand jury indictments against Christie supporters,” read the story.
ABC News’ Josh Margolin and Shushannah Walsh confirmed the report: “Federal authorities have launched a criminal investigation into New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, as well as members of his administration, a man at the center of the investigation told ABC News.”
There is a minor problem, however: It’s not true.
The “man at the center of the investigation” is Bennett Barlyn, a former local prosecutor who believes he was wrongly fired after finding himself in a tangled web of political corruption at the beginning of Christie’s first term in office. In a conversation with The Daily Beast on Friday, Barlyn said that he has been interviewed by the feds twice—once in May, and once on Feb. 4—but that he hasn’t the vaguest idea as to whether an investigation has been launched, and he’s not much clearer on why it was reported that one had been launched. “I don’t know. I’m not saying one way or the other,” he told me.
In 2010, Barlyn, then a local assistant prosecutor in horsey Hunterdon County, was fired. He alleges his firing came as he contested the decision by Christie officials to dismiss indictments against a sheriff and two deputies who Barlyn and others have characterized as Christie allies, though Christie’s press office has maintained that Christie has never had any contact with them.
Since his dismissal, Barlyn has refused to stay quiet. He filed suit against the Christie administration and has been on an endless campaign to keep his story in the news.
In 2013, Barlyn was the subject of a Page One New York Times story by then-Gotham columnist Michael Powell, headlined, “The Quashing of a Case Against a Christie Ally.” The story conceded “there is no evidence that Mr. Christie ordered the dismissal of the charges…” but nevertheless made a damning case that the indictments were thrown out without sufficient cause, and that Christie’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, was just a little too close to the characters involved. Powell quoted the Hunterdon Democrat as claiming the “Christie ally” assured one of his aides that Christie “would have this whole thing thrown out” ahead of, well, the whole thing being thrown out.
Team Christie did not respond well to the front-page story. Michael Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman, sent a letter to the paper’s public editor questioning the objectivity of Powell, and claiming that he omitted the fact that “Governor Christie had never recalled meeting or talking with a single one of these oddball characters… was completely unfamiliar with the local, often-petty machinations unfolding in Hunterdon County, and had no knowledge whatsoever of the case in question, its prosecution or ultimate dismissal by a judge.” (View the whole letter, obtained by The Daily Beast, here.)
Although Christie’s alleged wrongdoings and the less-attractive parts of his record had not exactly gone under-covered by the media, it was, until Bridgegate, almost impossible to touch the man. He had his critics, sure, but he was insulated by his celebrity. Stories about property-tax increases or prosecutors getting fired were not going to upstage videos of Christie on Letterman, self-deprecatingly eating a goddamn donut.
Bridgegate changed all of that; it was a bursting of the dams of bad press.
Writing for Politico Magazine the day after the story broke, I made a collection of 15 controversies surrounding Christie since his days as a U.S. Attorney. They ranged from the serious: canceling a construction project and using as justification inflated cost estimates; to the petty: he’s apparently a bad driver with six accidents and 13 moving violations, and perhaps why he frequently takes very expensive limo rides. Among the list of negative stories was Barlyn’s, which I ranked at No. 4
A few days later, I received an email from Suzanne Barlyn, a business reporter at Reuters and Barlyn’s wife. The email, which cc’d another reporter, was titled “Something else that Christie ‘didn’t know.’” In it, she made the case that Bridgegate had made her husband’s story relevant again, and informed that he was willing to talk about it. She provided his cellphone number and email address.
I took the bait and soon after met with Barlyn at Lincoln Center, near his mother’s apartment, where he said he sometimes stays. He was friendly and patient explaining his story, and said he had “no regrets” about the actions that he believes got him fired. He gave me printed out court documents and a flash drive for backup, and offered his opinion about Bridgegate. “There are many parallels in what happened in Bridgegate [and what happened in Hunterdon],” he said. “We experienced it first.”
Barlyn and I kept in touch, though I decided not to write a story about his case. Something about Barlyn just felt… off. It’s hard to say what it was. Barlyn’s eagerness to tell his story may have just been motivated by his desire to seek what he believes is justice, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. Not that it mattered: Barlyn just gave other interviews, often on TV, to ABC and to MSNBC.
But Barlyn still emailed me updates. If a paper wrote about his case, he emailed me the story; he sent information, too, like that the Christie administration had spent $155,000 defending against his lawsuit, according to documents he’d obtained through an open-records request. Sometimes, the emails were just anti-Christie: In June, he forwarded me a Star-Ledger editorial criticizing the governor’s position on medical marijuana.
That Barlyn eventually found Sirota is not surprising. Sirota is a reliably, gleefully anti-Christie reporter who often sacrifices nuance and accuracy in order to make his case. That Sirota interpreted Barlyn’s revelation that he met with the feds to discuss his case as proof of a "criminal investigation” being launched may have been miscommunication, or it may have been wishful thinking. "The bottom line is he seemed to be actively pursuing wrongdoing," Barlyn said of Sirota.
I asked Sirota (who I briefly worked with at another publication) to explain his misreporting. He directed me to his editors. “Our story notes that federal investigators have begun looking into whether the Christie administration improperly disposed of grand jury indictments to protect supporters. It also says the investigation is at an exploratory stage and may not result in charges. These facts are not in dispute.” Which is not, of course, what the story said, but never mind that, I guess.
On Thursday, Matthew Reilly, a spokesman for Paul Fishman, the United States Attorney, said “We talk to a lot of people about a lot of matters, but that does not necessarily mean it’s a criminal investigation.”
By Saturday, that had morphed into a definitive there-is-no-investigation. “Any characterization that we are investigating the governor about this is just not true,” Reilly said. “We talk to people all the time. It doesn’t mean we’re investigating anybody.” Which doesn’t mean that, at some point, a formal investigation won’t be launched—but that point is not now, and reporting otherwise is irresponsible.
It was Barlyn who reached out to the U.S. Attorney’s Office about his case last April, according to David Porter of the Associated Press. In a letter the wire service obtained, Fishman responded: “It is not apparent on the face of your submission that there have been potential violations of federal criminal law warranting this Office’s review.” Fishman, the AP reported, “directed Barlyn to one of the office’s investigators ‘to further assess whether your allegations may implicate such statuses.’”
Barlyn told me that in his two separate interviews with the feds, “they clearly indicated that they were there in response to my complaint.” Barlyn said he has provided the feds “with information on an ongoing basis that I thought corroborated my allegations—by email.”
“I have no knowledge at what stage, if any, there’s going to be a more formal investigation,” he said. But he thought the fact that there had been any interviews at all suggested the feds were interested: “When you come out to interview somebody for over an hour, I don’t know,” he said (Barlyn now lives in Pennsylvania). “Somebody thought it was worth sending two federal agents.”
Team Christie is not quite as convinced.
A source close to the Christie administration told me that Christie has not talked to the feds about Barlyn. “It has not happened,” the source said.
The source expressed dismay that Barlyn, himself a former prosecutor, would put so much stake in the interviews he had with the feds. “You’re a former prosecutor? As a former prosecutor, you know that an initial interview can mean little.”
This story has been updated to include additional comments from Barlyn, as well as to clarify that while a Rachel Maddow show producer wrote a blog post which did not challenge reports of a federal investigation being launched, the Rachel Maddow Show itself aired a segment that did.