Six Lessons for Nonprofits from Chris Christie’s Bridgegate Scandal

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January 9, 2014; USA Today


New Jersey governor Chris Christie held a remarkable—and lengthy—press conference yesterday, answering every question as respectfully as he could about the decision of his top aides to choke off traffic at the George Washington Bridge, which turned Fort Lee, New Jersey into an immobile parking lot for days on end in September. The ostensible motive of Christie’s aides? To punish the Democratic Mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to endorse the Republican Christie for reelection over his Democratic opponent, state senator Barbara Buono. 

The contrite Christie said he was sorry innumerable times, fired his deputy chief of staff and cut ties with others who allegedly orchestrated this travesty, called their behavior “abjectly” stupid, said he was sad, embarrassed, humiliated, betrayed, and stunned—for almost two hours. Not long after Christie ended his presser, David Wildstein, an aide involved in this who Christie had appointed to a position at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was testifying before a state legislative committee (that he had gone to court to resist) by invoking his Fifth Amendment rights not to answer any of their questions.

Nonprofits always learn from screw-ups in the public and corporate sectors. What can they learn from Christie’s public apologia for “Bridgegate?”

  1. Remember who the real victims are: Although Christie said all the requisite things to apologize to the mayor and citizens of Fort Lee who were stuck in days of gridlock, the overall tenor of the press conference was Christie-as-victim. Longtime aides who he had treated like family had outright lied to him, made him second-guess his judgment, undermined his trust. He may feel legitimately aggrieved as a manager of his staff, but the victims were really the 35,000 residents of Fort Lee and tens of thousands of other Bergen County residents. Fort Lee school children were stuck on buses for hours on end. An elderly woman died while emergency services personnel were stuck in traffic trying to reach her, and although there’s no evidence to suggest that the 91-year-old woman’s death was directly caused by the delays in getting her to the hospital, Fort Lee’s emergency services leader says that several responses for emergency assistance were delayed by the artificially induced traffic jam. These are potential impacts that cannot be dismissed by a statement of contrition, even one that lasted almost two hours like Christie’s. Gubernatorial executives and nonprofit executives shouldn’t get confused about who is most harmed by the misbehavior of the staff they oversee.
  2. Remember your managerial responsibility: How could Chris Christie have not known about his top aides’ alleged effort to exact political retribution from the mayor of Fort Lee? Christie said that he couldn’t know what all of his staff did in the New Jersey state government because as governor, he is responsible for 65,000 employees. That doesn’t work. Christie may not know what all of the diverse state government staff do on a day-to-day basis, but he is clearly supposed to know what the handful of his top aides do, especially given his reputation as a hands-on manager. For his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and the manager of his reelection campaign (and the appointee to a job at the Christie-headed Republican Governors Association), Bill Stepien, Christie can’t beg off what he really ought to have known. They operate too close to the Governor to be written off as distant, anonymous functionaries.
  3. Remember you’re responsible for organizational culture: Christie said he had been unaware that his reelection campaign had wanted, much less sought, an endorsement from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich—Christie claimed he didn’t know Sokolich and couldn’t have picked him out of a line-up—but his top aides seem to have been aggrieved enough that the Democrat didn’t cross party lines in the election to be willing to abuse state power to deliver political payback. An isolated incident? New Jersey politics ain’t beanbag, as the saying goes. Steve Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City, the second largest municipality in the state, says that he was also targeted—and Jersey City penalized—for his failure to endorse Christie’s reelection, with a half-dozen meetings between Jersey City staff and state government cabinet officers immediately canceled when Fulop rejected the endorsement. An executive has to bear some responsibility for the culture of an organization. In Christie’s case, he can fire Kelly, Stepien, and potentially others, but he has to look closely at the deeper culture of the governor’s office that led to the Bridgegate actions by his top aides.
  4. Remember the mission of your organization: One aspect of the significant abuses that seem to have occurred in Bridgegate is the misuse and abuse of government power. Unless the exchanges of emails and texts between Kelly and others concocting the George Washington Bridge lane closures are proven to be hoaxes, Governor Christie’s top aides were involved in a misuse of the power of government: the deprivation of services and resources for no other reason than to punish a purported political opponent. Even if Christie turns out to have been the innocent naïf he claimed to be in the press conference, the meta-crime involved here is the abuse of governmental power. As a former U.S. attorney, Christie must know how obnoxious and unacceptable his aides’ alleged actions have been. Nonprofits and governments alike cannot tolerate the abuse of their powers to the harm of individuals and communities. One doesn’t need to be taking bribes in order for public sector actions to constitute political corruption. 
  5. Remember to act in a timely manner: Fort Lee’s complaints about the G.W. Bridge lane closures have been brewing for months. In the fall, Christie made light of Fort Lee’s state-induced traffic gridlock, cracked jokes about traffic cones, and dismissed the entire controversy as due to a traffic study. He claims to have discovered the involvement of his aides in a political vendetta only on Wednesday morning when an aide called him to tell him about revelations in the Bergen Record, after which he investigated the facts, talked to key informants, and fired the alleged perpetrators. It begs credulity that a powerful, controlling governor could go months without perceiving the elements of a scandal right under his nose and find out only when blindsided by a newspaper article. The press would typically call the governor ahead of time, his aides would have known even if the newspaper hadn’t called for reactions, and for most nonprofit execs, the same exists. To be blindsided like Christie, to find out from a newspaper article only after finishing a workout with your personal trainer, as he claims happened, suggests serious managerial shortcomings—or, if not, willful acceptance of the behavior in question.
  6. Remember that retribution almost always backfires: Although it seems like it was a petty incident, a small city mayor who refused to endorse the powerful governor of New Jersey for reelection became the cause for some of Christie’s key aides to dole out political retribution. Did Christie or his aides really need to pursue a vendetta against Fort Lee and its mayor? It was beyond an electoral concern, since Christie was favored over his gubernatorial opponent by landslide proportions. Bridgegate shows political and nonprofit leaders that carrying out vendettas against presumed “enemies” is just about always counterproductive, a waste of time and energy, and a path that leads some people into actions that go beyond the pale of propriety. When you have opponents or enemies, just get over it; don’t waste your time stewing and plotting revenge. In New Jersey government, some of us used to suggest that good government is good politics. For nonprofits, pursuing their legitimate missions is a far better strategy than exacting punishment against purported enemies. 

Christie did the right thing in getting in front of the press, answering every question, apologizing without bolting from the dais, and maintaining his personal composure. But other elements of the Christie performance and the Bridgegate scandal overall suggest that the tough-talking New Jersey governor who promotes himself as a strong manager may not be quite the credible manager he wants all of us to see.—Rick Cohen

Note from the editors: In the spirit of full disclosure, Rick Cohen was once an official of the Jersey City government, although he hasn’t worked for JC since 1989 and asserts that he doesn’t recall ever having met current mayor Steve Fulop—or Governor Christie.