Law Firms

Federal judge criticizes BigLaw firm's 'unorthodox approach' in New Jersey bridge scandal

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A federal judge is taking Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher to task for failing to preserve contemporaneous interview notes in an investigation that found no wrongdoing by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in a lane closing scandal.

In a decision (PDF) on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton of Newark said the law firm took an “unorthodox approach” by overwriting lawyers’ electronic interview notes to produce an edited, final version. That was a change from the law firm’s typical procedure. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.), the New Jersey Law Journal (sub. req.) and the Record have stories.

“Although [Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher] did not delete or shred documents,” Wigenton wrote, “the process of overwriting their interview notes and drafts of the summaries had the same effect. This was a clever tactic, but when public investigations are involved, straightforward lawyering is superior to calculated strategy. The taxpayers of the state of New Jersey paid GDC millions of dollars to conduct a transparent and thorough investigation. What they got instead was opacity and gamesmanship. They deserve better.”

Two defendants charged in connection with the scandal had sought the interview notes. They are accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish a mayor who did not endorse Christie for re-election. The two defendants are Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, a former executive with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Despite her criticism of Gibson Dunn, Wigenton quashed the defendants’ subpoena for the interview notes, saying there was no evidence that such materials exist. She also quashed the defendants’ subpoena for metadata to identify who created interview summaries and who edited them, saying it doesn’t have any bearing on the charged offenses. The defendants were charged, she said, as a result of a 16-month federal investigation, not the law firm’s two-month probe.

The law firm has billed the state of New Jersey $8 million for its legal work, the stories say.

Questions have been raised about the independence of the Gibson Dunn investigation. One lawyer involved in the probe hosted a $2,700-a-person fundraiser this week on behalf of Christie’s campaign for the GOP nomination for president, according to the Record and the New York Times.

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