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February 19, 2015

Gov. Chris Christie Gets By With a Little Help from His ‘Friends’

By Jordan Morrisey and Matt Corley

Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ)Since entering office, Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) has exhibited a taste for private planes and luxury hotel rooms, especially at the expense of wealthy benefactors.  As the governor himself has put it, he is taking advantage of the opportunities offered by his time in office and trying “to squeeze all the juice out of the orange” he can.  The privately subsidized jet-setting, however, has recently placed the potential 2016 presidential contender in ethical hot water. 

First, Gov. Christie and his family accepted a private plane ride and seats in a private suite at a NFL playoff game provided by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.  The trip prompted the American Democracy Legal Fund to file a complaint with the New Jersey State Ethics Commission, arguing that Gov. Christie violated state gift rules.  Then, the New York Times reported on a 2012 trade mission to Israel that started with a private jet courtesy of casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and ended with a family weekend in Jordan paid for by King Abdullah II himself.  CREW subsequently filed a complaint with the New Jersey State Ethics Commission against Gov. Christie for accepting gifts of free foreign travel, lodging, and entertainment for himself and his family.  

In both cases, the governor’s staff have claimed he did not violate the Governor’s Code of Conduct because of an exception for gifts from “relatives or personal friends that are paid for with personal funds.”  “Their friendship began in the summer of 2013,” Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts told the Wall Street Journal, referring to Mr. Jones.  Speaking to the New York Times, Christie spokeswoman Maria Comella, called King Abdullah II “a friend” of the governor’s as they once met at a dinner hosted by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Gov. Christie and his staff have a very expansive definition of what qualifies someone as a “personal friend” if a foreign head of state makes the cut after a single meeting.  In fact, their definition is so broad, it distorts the term entirely, allowing the governor “to make an end-run around the gift rules by labeling every gift as coming from a friend, no matter how remote the relationship,” as CREW argued in its complaint

To illustrate this point, CREW decided to look at some of the other wealthy patrons who Gov. Christie could claim are “friends” if they flew him around the world, spent thousands on parties in his honor, or lavished him with tickets to high profile events.

Mark Zuckerberg

Gov. Christie was the fortunate benefactor of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s first political fundraiser at his Palo Alto home in February 2013.  "When Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan offer to hold a fundraiser for you, you say, ‘Yes sir, what time should I come?’” the governor told the Star-Ledger. “They’re both wonderful people, have become very good friends to me and to Mary Pat.” Mr. Zuckerberg contributed $3,800 to the governor’s 2013 primary and general election campaigns.  The governor’s friendly relationship with the tech billionaire was supposedly sparked by Mr. Zuckerberg’s pledge of $100 million to the Newark, NJ, school system.

Ken Langone

While Gov. Christie does not appear to have publicly referred to Ken Langone as a friend, the governor has spent plenty of time with the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot.  Mr. Langone hosted Gov. Christie, along with wealthy donors, at his private home in Palm Beach, Florida in January 2014.  Before the 2012 election, Mr. Langone invited Gov. Christie to meet “a small group” of donors who wanted him to run for president.  When Gov. Christie decided against running in 2012, Mr. Langone was his first call. “I’m not doing it, Kenny,” Gov. Christie told his billionaire booster.  “I wanted you to know before anyone else knew.”  Mr. Langone contributed $2,000 to Gov. Christie in the 2009 election cycle while he and his wife each contributed the maximum allowable amount of $3,800 to both Gov. Christie’s primary and general election campaigns in 2013.  Mr. Langone also contributed $50,000 to the Republican Governors Association (RGA) while Gov. Christie was the organization’s chairman.

David Koch

Last, but certainly not least, Gov. Christie has cultivated a political and social relationship with David Koch, of the billionaire Koch brothers.  Their relationship goes back to at least 2011, when the two met privately at Mr. Koch’s office for two hours.  After the meeting, Mr. Koch declared, “He is my kind of guy.”  The governor has attended a private dinner with donors at Mr. Koch’s 9,000 square-foot duplex in Manhattan. The two, along with their wives, even attended a New York Giants game against the Cowboys in November 2014.  Mr. Koch contributed $2.5 million to the RGA during Gov. Christie’s tenure as chairman.

None of these “friends” are apolitical, of course. Mr. Zuckerberg’s Facebook spent more than $9 million on lobbying in 2014 on the federal level while Mr. Langone is a prolific political donor with strong views on what government policy should be.  The political network spearheaded by Mr. Koch and his brother has vowed to spend $889 million ahead of the 2016 elections.  Gov. Christie’s relationship with each of them appears to have been forged as part of the political process, making it hard to determine where politics ends and friendship begins.  Indeed, it almost seems as though the best way to become “friends” with Gov. Christie is to either invest in his political career or invite him to ride on your private jet.

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