Why Chris Christie owed Steve King a favor

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie flew to Iowa today for Governor Terry Branstad’s education reform summit in Des Moines. After his speech and a brief press conference, Christie made time to headline a West Des Moines fundraiser for Representative Steve King.

When I first heard about the fundraiser, I assumed Christie agreed because King is facing his toughest re-election challenge yet. The new fourth Congressional district leans Republican, but not as strongly as the district King currently represents. In addition, Democratic challenger Christie Vilsack has built an early cash-on-hand advantage over the incumbent. Doing a good turn for an Iowa Republican never hurts an out-of-state politician who may run for president someday. At the very least, Christie would score some points with the major donors in attendance, such as Denny Elwell, who’s hosting the $250 per person fundraiser for King.

I learned from Thomas Beaumont of the Associated Press that Christie had additional reasons to do King a favor:  

The King event is in part out of gratitude for the congressman’s support for Christie at a congressional hearing two years ago, King adviser Chuck Laudner said.

Christie, then the nominee for New Jersey governor, faced pointed questioning at a Judiciary subcommittee hearing in the then-Democratic-controlled House about no-bid contracts he awarded as U.S. attorney in New Jersey.

Follow me after the jump for background on that hearing and clips from the transcript showing how King helped Christie.

UPDATE: Added King’s comments on the Christie fundraiser below.

Christie appeared before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law on June 25, 2009. His campaign against Democratic Governor Jon Corzine was in full swing. (New Jersey elects its governor in the year following each presidential election.) Christie had served as U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey during most of George W. Bush’s presidency. He was invited to the Congressional hearing “as an expert witness on the practice of deferred prosecution agreements.”

But the hearing was anything but a dry examination of the practice, wherein companies under investigation can be assigned a private attorney as a sort of chaperone, rather than face criminal or civil prosecution.

Christie’s office had arranged seven of the agreements during his tenure as U.S. Attorney, in each case making non-binding attorney recommendations to the noncompliant companies-and Democrats have seized on contracts awarded to former Attorney General John Ashcroft and to an attorney who once investigated Christie’s brother’s firm – and then did not indict Christie’s brother.

One of those no-bid contracts awarded to Ashcroft’s law firm was worth $52 million. During the hearing, Christie faced tough questioning from some of the Democrats on the subcommittee. King helped Christie at several junctures. The full transcript of the hearing is available here. This excerpt is from King’s opening statement.

And as I frame my outlook on this issue, I would just seek to frame for this Committee that we have seen many of the members

of the former Bush administration before this Committee during his tenure as President of the United States and then after.

And some of the subject of this is John Ashcroft, whom as I watched him testify before this Committee, it was an exemplary display of how a witness can come before this Committee fully in- formed, giving direct answers soundly based in legal analysis and theory, and having their recollection that was so impressive to me. […] There have been a number of other members of the Bush administration that have been before this Committee, David Addington comes to mind. Doug Fife [sic] comes to mind. There are a number of others.

And you know, I would just suggest that we have a lot of impor- tant issues before this country, and we are on the precipice of going forward, perhaps in this Congress, with some irrevocable decisions. I think at this point we are at the reversible point. The things that have happened so far during this Administration are reversible should the American people decide to do so.

Once we cross this Rubicon into the three big issues that are ahead of us in this Congress, I don’t know that we can go back to the place where we are today, or the place, my preference, which was where we were before.

But I would suggest that we should be forward-looking, rather than backward-looking, and the data that I have looked at indi- cates to me that there has been a positive result from some of these negotiations that have taken place.

And if we are going to be looking backwards and I reflect back- wards on some decisions that have been made by the Department of Justice agreements not to prosecute entities that are signifi- cantly engaged in affecting the political decisions on this Capitol Hill. […]

And if there is a constructive result that has come and if the right things are done for the right reason, I am hopeful that in a bipartisan way we can congratulate the people who participated in that and move forward into the future rather than looking back.

I think especially, gentlemen, Mr. Christie is part of the future leadership in this country, and hopefully this will enhance his abil- ity to contribute to American society, and I would yield back the balance of my time and thank the Chairman.

In other words, King wanted the committee to stop digging into what happened during the Bush administration. That’s consistent with the way he helped disrupt questioning of Douglas Feith, a senior Pentagon official under Bush, in 2008. When former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan testified before the House Judiciary Committee about how Valerie Plame had been exposed as a CIA agent, King asked McClellan, “Couldn’t you have taken this to the grave with you and done this country a favor?” King’s a fan of letting bygones be bygones whenever House Democrats want to examine alleged wrongdoing by a Republican. In contrast, King’s all for Congressional investigations into certain decisions by Democratic administrations, such as the USDA’s Pigford settlement with victims of discrimination against African-American farmers.

Back to June 25, 2009. Subcommittee Chairman Steve Cohen’s opening remarks about Christie are on pages 4-6 of this pdf file, and Cohen’s questioning of Christie can be found on pages 114 through 117. At one point, Cohen asserted that Christie had required Bristol-Meyers-Squibb “to endow a chair in business ethics at [Christie’s] alma mater, Seton Hall.” Cohen also accused Christie of making a different company “an offer they couldn’t refuse” when he recommended that executives hire Ashcroft as the company’s attorney.

King jumped into action. First, he went after Cohen for making an issue out of the alleged endowment at Seton Hall’s business school:

[Mr. KING.] And there is a significant amount of disagreement and the clash that has just taken place between Mr. Cohen and Mr. Christie, and so I would like to direct my attention to that and ask Mr. Christie if you are aware where the genesis of this allegation about the en- dowment might have originated?

Mr. CHRISTIE. Sir, there was no discussion of this at the time. When the agreement was made it was made public. Allegations of this came up much, much later on in a much more political context.

Mr. KING. And I accept that and I suspect that, and I just reit- erate that this is turning into a political issue, and hopefully we could examine the issue in front of us and still let the public know, Mr. Chairman, about the political components of this.

And it got my attention as I listened to Mr. Cohen’s opening re- marks, when he made this allegation about the endowment at Seton Hall, and so it occurred to me instantly that when he said that Members of Congress wouldn’t do something like that. No, Members of Congress instead just simply offer earmarks for their endowments.

And I can think of some in my district there are Harkin Grants. My junior senator-he has his name clearly over these things. Those are endowments that go into the educational institutions all over the country with the name Harkin Grant on them. There are buildings named after living members of the United States Senate, and we try not to do that for living members of the House of Rep- resentatives.

King then asked Christie to name the five businesses that were subject to the agreement Cohen had cited. After the witness did so, King pointed out that Cohen had issued a press release taking credit for an $800,000 earmark to one of those corporations, Smith & Nephew. King asked for unanimous consent to put Cohen’s press release into the the record, saying,

I make this point because it is easy to point fingers. It is easy to make allegations. It is much more dif- ficult to make a cogent case against deferred prosecution agree- ments.

No one on this panel has made a case against them. They have raised the issue about unintended consequences. And so I would then, rather than go down the list of things I would like to see reit- erated here by the witnesses, and the record is relatively replete, but I am reflecting upon a part of Mr. Christie’s written testimony that I didn’t hear in his oral presentation about the difficulty of reaching this agreement with five companies simultaneously.

And the language that jumps off the page when I read the writ- ten testimony is, ”Negotiating these agreements was akin to land- ing five airplanes on the same runway at the same time.” I would ask Mr. Christie if he would speak to the difficulty of this agree- ment.

Christie then described the difficult four-and-a-half month long negotiation “with some of the best lawyers, corporate health care lawyers in America.” He also explained how the public had benefited from the settlement he negotiated.

Mr. KING. Thank you, Mr. Christie. And in conclusion if, with some deference from the Chair, I would like to just summarize this that I have not been able to get two opposing attorneys to agree on anything. The only way I can get them to agree is if they are paid by the same client.

And the difficulty of bringing this together over massive dol- lars-an $80 billion industry and 94 to 95 percent of the industry controlled by these five entities depending on whether it is written or oral testimony, but that is a huge number.

And saving the public $450 million at least, $150 million of that from the costs of these services and saving 47,000 jobs seems to me to be an extraordinary accomplishment, and I cannot for the life of me divine why you would be in the public eye unless it would be for adulation.

King came to Christie’s defense one last time during the hearing. Democrat Brad Sherman was asking a lot of tough questions (pages 135 through 138), when Christie announced that he needed to leave, because he had a train to catch and “pressing business” in New Jersey. Republican Representative Trent Franks was allowed to ask a few more questions; he used the time to praise Christie’s work. Then this exchange ensued:

Mr. CHRISTIE. Thank you, sir.

Mr. FRANKS. So with that, I wish you the best. I think you have done a fantastic job here today and I am sorry that you were sub- jected to some of the insinuations, but you have done a great job and I might endorse you for governor.

CHRISTIE. Thank you, sir. COHEN. Mr. Christie, what time is your train? CHRISTIE. My train is a little bit before 2:00, sir, and I have to go.

COHEN. You are not going to make a 2 o’clock, so– CHRISTIE. Well, sir, I am– COHEN. Mr. Johnson, you are recognized. CHRISTIE. Sir, I am going. I said I had to leave at 1:30 and I will.

COHEN. Mr. Johnson, you are recognized for your questions. KING. The agreement was– COHEN. Five minutes.

Mr. KING. There was an agreement with the gentleman, Mr. Chairman. Is that not correct, an agreement at 1:30?

Mr. COHEN. Mr. Johnson, you are recognized. Mr. JOHNSON. Yes, I am not going to have any questions– Mr. KING. Parliamentary inquiry, Mr. Chairman. Mr. JOHNSON [continuing]. For Mr. Christie. Mr. KING. Parliamentary inquiry. Mr. JOHNSON. I will not have any questions for Mr. Christie. Mr. COHEN. Mr. King, what is your parliamentary inquiry? Mr. KING. Parliamentary inquiry, I would ask if you would re-spond. Was there an agreement with Mr. Christie that he would leave at 1:30 and why would you resist that?

Mr. COHEN. I didn’t. I asked Mr. Johnson for his time. There is four panelists with information he wasn’t going to ask Mr. Christie. I hope you are satisfied. Mr. Johnson, continue.

Mr. KING. I am unsatisfied.

Blue Jersey posted the video of the last few minutes of questioning before Christie walked out on the hearing. Without reading the transcript, it’s hard to tell who is saying what.

A forthcoming post will discuss Branstad’s education summit, including the speech by the New Jersey governor, who has big ambitions for education reform. Meanwhile, any comments related to Christie’s Iowa visit are welcome in this thread.

P.S. Cohen later demanded more detailed answers from Christie, saying the responses he gave during the June 25 hearing had been “particularly unsatisfactory.”

UPDATE: Speaking to Kathie Obradovich of the Des Moines Register, King boasted on Monday,

“There’s some people that would like to have him do those fundraisers that he’s not doing them for,” King said, and also noted that Christie is a highly coveted guest for fundraisers.

He says he thinks Christie’s offer to help him relates to 2009, when Christie was called before Congress to defend his use of contracts as attorney general of New Jersey.

King says he defended Christie and others from what he considered a “political lynching.”

“He remembered that, and for me it was all in a day’s work, ” King said.

Yep, all in a day’s work. This episode is a good reminder that members of Congress do much more than vote on legislation. An otherwise-obscure subcommittee hearing turned out to be very important in the life of a now-powerful governor. A bunch of Republicans served on that subcommittee, but King went above and beyond in defending Christie that day.

Meanwhile, the Iowa Democratic Party sent out a press release Tuesday slamming King for missing seven recorded votes in the U.S. House so that he could attend the West Des Moines fundraiser with Christie. In fairness to King, roll calls 630 through 636 weren’t exactly earth-shattering: representatives voted to approve the House Journal and to consider the 2012 funding bill for Interior, environment and related programs. There were also votes on five amendments to that appropriations bill, but King’s presence wouldn’t have affected whether those amendments passed or failed.

King drew some attention from the national press corps by tweeting on July 25,

STOP talking about default. The 1st dime of each $1 of revenue services debt. Obama would be impeached if he blocked debt payments. C C & B!

That’s “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” the legislation House Republicans approved last week. It died in the Senate on a party-line vote.

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