He has put scores of corrupt politicians behind bars, brought Bristol-Myers Squibb to heel and seized control of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), the country’s largest medical school.
Some critics accuse him of seeking the spotlight to further his political ambitions. Others say he uses unfair prosecutorial tactics and still others call him too quick to cut a deal.
But hardly anyone doubts that Chris Christie, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey who was dismissed at first as a lightweight, has proven himself the toughest and most aggressive corruption buster the state has seen in years.
“He has energized the U.S. attorney’s office and there are a number of areas such as corruption where it is doing more than it ever has,” says Lawrence Lustberg, a prominent defense lawyer who regularly faces off against Christie’s prosecutors. “He has shaken things up and the results have been tremendous.”
Often overlooked in assessments of Christie, who has just begun his fifth year in office, is his nuanced handling of the state’s business community.
“You need to send a strong message to major corporate entities, but you also don’t want to put them out of business,” Christie said in a wide-ranging interview with NJBIZ in his seventh-floor Newark office, where decorations range from New York Mets memorabilia to a guitar that Bruce Springsteen once owned. Also on view is a bottle of Mr. Clean household cleanser with a photo of Christie’s face on the label.
“There are 40,000 employees at Bristol-Myers and thousands of students at UMDNJ,” says Christie, 43. “What will be served by putting them out of business? Having to pay money back and essentially having the U.S. attorney take over your entity for a period of time is a lot of punishment, and it doesn’t preclude us from [prosecuting] the individuals responsible.”
As the state’s top federal law enforcer, Christie can’t help but have pharmaceutical companies in his sights. Just last week German drugmaker Bayer said Christie’s office had subpoenaed information concerning Baycol/Cerivastatin, a withdrawn anti-cholesterol drug allegedly linked to some 100 deaths.
“New Jersey’s business community is for the most part upstanding and ethical,” says Christie, who is as affable in person as he is relentless on the job. “Very few New Jersey businesses have been prosecuted for corporate wrongdoing.” However, he adds, “we have investigations ongoing that may lead to further business prosecutions.”
In the UMDNJ case, Christie sprang a publicity-grabbing surprise. Five days before Christmas last year he strode into a monthly meeting of the scandal-racked school’s board of trustees while the press snapped photos of his entry. Although the board members knew Christie was coming, they had no idea what he would do. Would he file charges against the university? Propose hefty fines? Make an arrest?
Borrowing a tactic from his favorite movie, “The Godfather,” Christie made the board an offer it couldn’t refuse during the closed-door meeting. He told the trustees to reimburse the federal government $4.9 million over five years for double-billing Medicare and Medicaid, and to accept a federal monitor of UMDNJ’s finances, or face a criminal prosecution of the school.
“I’m a pretty plain-spoken guy,” Christie says of the session. “I just said, ‘We have developed sufficient evidence to bring charges against you.’ I laid it out for them in sharp detail. At the end of the meeting, I think they were convinced they had a major problem.”
Christie’s talk was “methodical, engaging and one of the most well-prepared presentations I have ever witnessed,” says Christopher Paladino, president of the New Brunswick Development Corp. He recently stepped down from the UMDNJ board. The U.S. attorney “spoke for 45 minutes, apparently without notes, outlining the government’s position.”
Christie’s strategy of offering the board a so-called deferred prosecution agreement was similar to the ultimatum he delivered to Bristol-Myers Squibb last year after the company inflated sales and booked nearly $1 billion in bogus profits. In both cases, Christie required the institutions to accept federal oversight as the price of avoiding immediate prosecution.
The Bristol-Myers deal compelled the drug maker to admit wrongdoing and pay $839 million to reimburse stockholders. Two former executives implicated in the scam currently await trial.
In an unusual twist, Bristol-Myers agreed to pay $5 million to endow a chair in business ethics at Seton Hall University Law School, where Christie earned his law degree in 1987. Some critics call that a form of prosecutorial abuse. “I understand why people would come to that conclusion, but factually it’s not true,” Christie says. “It was Bristol-Myer’s idea to endow a chair and Seton Hall was chosen because Rutgers Law School-Newark already had a chair in business ethics.”
The Bristol-Myers and UMDNJ cases have left Christie open to charges that his actions were too lenient on the one hand, and unfair on the other because they enabled him to extract penalties without revealing his evidence.
Defense lawyers also accuse Christie of grandstanding by marching in and out of the UMDNJ board meeting with camera lights flashing and holding inflammatory news conferences before cases come to court. For example, when Christie announced the indictment of former Bristol-Myers comptroller and CFO Frederick Schiff on charges of conspiracy and securities fraud last summer, he referred to the defendant as the company’s “chief concealment officer.”
In court papers filed two weeks ago, Schiff sought dismissal of the charges and accused Christie of misconduct for using the derogatory term.
Outside New Jersey, Christie’s chief claim to fame has been the prosecution on corruption charges of 86 political figures on both sides of the aisle. Like the sports fan he is, he describes his record as “86 and 0,” since the defendants all pleaded guilty or were convicted by juries. “We are doing okay,” Christie says.
Those sent to jail include former Essex County Executive James Treffinger, whom Christie charged with trading county contracts in exchange for contributions to his U.S. Senate campaign; former Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski, once a top power broker who was accused of trading contracts for cash; and former Paterson Mayor Martin Barnes, charged with trading contracts for cash, custom-made Italian suits, a swimming pool and the services of prostitutes.
President George W. Bush nominated Christie to the U.S. attorney’s office in 2001 after Christie had raised money for Bush’s 2000 campaign. His only previous government service had been a single term as a Morris County freeholder, and he had never prosecuted a criminal case.
Christie says he was “nervous about failing” when he first took office and he recalls that people felt “I wasn’t up to the job.”
These days he considers his position “the best job any lawyer can have in New Jersey. My two bosses are the President of the United States and the U.S. Attorney General,” and “they are not calling me every day to ask how things are going. You have a great deal of autonomy and you deal with the most important issues that come up with the state.”
Christie, who lives in Mendham with his wife, Mary Pat, and their four children ages 2 to 12, was surprised by the amount of corruption in his native state. “I knew it was bad,” he says, but “I didn’t think it was that bad.” He ranks New Jersey among the five most corrupt states in the country. “It’s always comforting to have Illinois and Louisiana,” he says, “but we are in that class.”
Christie attributes the problem to the sheer number of governing bodies in New Jersey, including 566 municipalities, and a $28 billion state budget. “That’s a lot of money for people to create a lot of mischief and for dishonest people to put their hands into,” Christie says. “And when you get a history of corruption it tends to repeat itself unless you get an aggressive form of law enforcement to break the cycle, which is what we are trying to do.”
His star turn as a prosecutor makes the Republican Christie a prospective candidate for elected office in a state now dominated by Democrats. He declined to seek his party’s nomination for governor in 2005, partly because Bush’s re-election the previous year promises to keep Christie in the U.S. Attorney’s job until 2009. But he won’t rule out a run for governor in 2009 or for the U.S Senate in 2010. “It’s something you have to give a thought to,” he says.
Provided by NJBiz.com