By Brad Friedman on 9/8/2011, 4:30am PT  

Well, it looks like Part 2 of my Secret Koch Tapes exclusive at Mother Jones yesterday has ignited a political firestorm. Several of them, actually, particularly in the state of New Jersey. Oops.

One of the firestorms has even led the Democratic Speaker of the NJ Assembly to call Gov. Chris Christie "disgraceful," charge that his comments about her were "outright lies," that he is "not fit to lead the state," and that she is "beginning to wonder if Gov. Christie is mentally deranged." All statements given to local media late today in response to our release of the tapes. Though some local Dems are still wondering if it may be the Speaker, rather than Christie, who is hiding the truth.

As I described in my BRAD BLOG piece linking to Part 2 at MoJo on Wednesday morning, the good citizens of the Garden State (and the whole of the mainstream media along with them) learned only yesterday that their Republican Governor had snuck out of state on June 26th, right after appearing on Meet the Press, jetted across the country to deliver the keynote address at the super-secret, ultra-exclusive gathering of rightwing corporate barons and billionaires --- otherwise known as the Koch Brothers 2011 Summer Seminar --- at a resort near Vail, Colorado, before he then flew back home to NJ that night, and went on to appear on three cable news shows, in studio in Manhattan, the next morning. Nobody ever knew he was gone --- at least until my story broke at MoJo yesterday morning.

Since then, local media and politicos have been combing through our report --- and Tuesday's Part 1 before it, as described later that night. They've apparently been digging through the full transcript of Christie's remarks, and David Koch's introduction to it, as transcribed from a secret audio recording of the goings on at the Koch fete, which we obtained from an insider source.

More on the Part 2 fallout, including new details, confirmations from officials, ignited firestorms and opened hornets' nests below. But first, I wanted to front page these nice comments from an NPR report by Frank James, which helps to put this entire flurry of Koch muckraking in perspective:

The reports are well worth taking time to read not just for the secret thrill you'll get from glimpsing something never intended for the public eye.
It's a look behind the curtain of how big money is raised in conservative circles that's a worthwhile addition to our sum of knowledge about how American politics is practiced in the early 21st Century.

Indeed. And with that, on to the summary of yesterday's noteworthy fallout and, at points, rather mucky, developments...

'SMOKING GUN': One of the eyebrow raising revelations from billionaire brother David Koch's introduction to Christie's speech (read it/listen to it in full here), was that he'd privately met with the Governor five months prior to the secret Vail event, "just the two of us — for about two hours." Afterward, Koch says on the tapes, he determined that Christie was "my kind of guy."

A few months later --- exactly one month prior to his appearance in Vail --- Christie would use his executive powers to unilaterally withdraw the state from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI, pronounced "Reggie"), a pact of 10 Northeastern states to develop a cap-and-trade market to curb pollutants, and use the resulting funds to invest in clean energy initiatives. The Kochs, funders of much of the Global Warming Denial Movement and owners of the huge oil and chemical conglomerate Koch Industries, the country's second largest privately held company, hate RGGI and have been working to undermine it through their various foundations and front groups.

AP has picked up on that part of our story and reports that environmentalists view the disclosure of Christie's private meeting with Koch as a "smoking gun."

"This is the smoking gun that shows he's been working with the Koch brothers from the beginning," Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, told AP.

A spokesman for Christie, however, tells the news service that the timing of the events, both the Vail speech and the private NYC meeting with Koch five months prior, was "wholly unconnected" to Christie's decision to pull out of RGGI.

Nonetheless, as AP notes:

Christie’s decision to leave RGGI dismayed environmentalists. It thrilled conservatives, especially the Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group that has been lobbying around the country for the repeal of RGGI and other energy regulations. Americans for Prosperity is backed by the billionaire Koch brothers.

AFP, which also bankrolls the "Tea Party" movement, is not only "backed by the billionaire Koch brothers," but, as AP failed to note, David serves as its Chairman.

PAID FOR BY THE REPUBLICAN PARTY: The same AP report also offers a brief statement --- in the last sentence of the article --- that may answer, at least in part, the question of whether state resources were used for Christie's secret trip.

That was a question I couldn't get answered myself, as Christie's spokesperson refused to return several of my calls after he had learned that I had questions about Christie's previously undisclosed trip to Colorado.

"The trip was paid for by the New Jersey state Republican Party, GOP spokesman Rick Gorka said," according to AP.

Given the extraordinary security at the event on the night of Christie's speech, however, including what appeared to be a "secret service type" of detail, according to my sources, questions remain as to whether state security or other resources were used during Christie's private political adventure.

If so, it wouldn't be the first time he's been accused of abusing those privileges. In early June, Christie initially refused to reimburse the state, after coming under fire for using a state helicopter to go see his son's high school baseball game (and also a state limo which drove him about 100 yards from the chopper to the grandstands), and then back again after the fifth inning. After coming under public fire he then agreed to pay the state treasurer back for the $2500-an-hour chopper trip, and several other similarly private ventures on the state dole.

Note to corporate media: More digging here, please. It would be remarkable if there were no state security detail accompanying Christie on his trip to Vail.

'MENTALLY DERANGED': While Part 1 on Tuesday --- focusing on Charles Koch's fund raising remarks in which he alluded to "Saddam Hussein" and the "Mother of all Wars" in reference to their 2012 hopes of unseating President Obama --- led to a viral media frenzy, I'm delighted to see that yesterday's report focusing on David Koch and Chris Christie has similarly brought out a flurry of coverage in the New Jersey press.

The hottest of the firestorms to develop on Wednesday in NJ surrounded Christie's remarks at the Koch event concerning backroom efforts to secretly support the Democratic Speaker of the state Assembly, Sheila Oliver, in exchange for her support for a bill that slashed public employee pensions and benefits. The alleged backroom bargain lead to passage of the bill in the Democratic majority legislature --- with only a minority of Dems on board --- just days before Christie snuck out to Vail.

The full audio and transcript of Christie's version of the event is right here. Here's the story in very hot contention, as Christie recounted it to his admirers in Colorado, when he didn't think anyone outside of the event would hear about it:

They were supposed to start voting at 1:00. It got to be 5:30 and they were still in the caucus room. And the reports I was getting out of there were not positive about what was going on to my friend the Speaker. She was takin' a beating at the hands of her own party. At 5:30 she called me and she said to me, "Governor, I don't know how this is going to play out, but I'm going to, I want to post the bill but I think when I go on the floor, my own party's going to take a run at me to remove me as Speaker. So I can't post the bill." She said, "I think the only way I survive is if the 33 Republicans in the chamber will agree to vote for me for Speaker. Can you work it out?" [scattered laughter] So I said, "Give me five minutes." [laughter]

So I went down to the Republican Assembly caucus room. I stood at the front of the room and I said, "Ladies and gentleman, it's a historic day today. You're going to get an opportunity to cast two historic votes." [laughter] "The first one, of course, is about pension and benefit reform and I know that everybody in this room supports it. The second one is a little more unusual." [laughter] I said, "Probably for the only time in my governorship I'm going to actually ask you to vote for a Democrat. I said Sheila Oliver is under siege. And she wants to do the right thing. And we cannot be slaves to party or partisanship. She is right on this issue and she is with us on this issue. So if they take a run at her on the floor, I need all of you to vote for her for Speaker." I had these men and women look back at me like, "What?" [scattered laughter] And I said to 'em, "We were sent here to lead. Not to preen and posture, posture and pose. To lead. A public office to lead. We need to do this. So raise your hands. Are you with me or aren't you?" All 33 of them raised their hands and said they were with me.

And so I went back to my office, I got on the phone and I called the Speaker, and I said, "You just got 33 new votes." And she said, "Well, you just got yourself a bill." And she went on the floor, she led the debate, another two and a half hours of debate. They never took a run at her.

The pen-ben bill (as it's known in NJ) was ultimately passed in the lower chamber 46 to 32, with 33 Republicans and 13 Dems voting in favor, and the majority of Dems voting against. Local Democrats and unions were furious at both Oliver and Senate President Steve Sweeney for working with Christie to pass the bill.

John Schoonejongen of New Jersey Press Media reported that Christie was asked about his newly revealed version of the story at a press conference in Atlantic City yesterday. The Governor essentially reiterated the version he told in Vail, essentially confirming the veracity of our secret recordings --- in case anybody still had any questions about that --- publicly for the first time in the bargain.

"Christie said the episode underscored what he claims is a recent trend in New Jersey politics when policy 'to get the important things done' wins out over party politics," Schoonejongen reports.

When Chris Megerian at The Star-Ledger covered it (also linking and giving us appropriate credit, thanks) they included the first response to the revelations from Oliver. The paper writes that she said, "in no uncertain terms that the conversation with Christie never happened."

“Governor Christie is making an assertion that I called him and asked him for his help in retaining my speakership? Governor Christie is more mentally deranged than some of us thought. Never happened,” she told The Star-Ledger late yesterday afternoon.

They also quote a number of other Dems who offered different concerns about Christie's account:

Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), who opposed the cuts to public employee benefits, criticized the entire episode as an upsetting example of a political quid pro quo.

"This is not about bipartisanship," he said. "It's about power politics."

Codey added: "I think (Christie) totally disrespected the speaker and made her look bad."

His comments were echoed by Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), who called the reported conversation between Christie and Oliver “troubling on many levels."

Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) said Christie was inflating rumors of a coup attempt to make the story more dramatic.

"It's a red meat speech," Diegnan said. "There was never any attempt at a coup."

Later in the day, Maya Rao and Matt Katz at the Philadelphia Inquirer offered even more fervent denials from Oliver, as reported this way:

TRENTON - The Democratic leader of the New Jersey Assembly said she was "beginning to wonder if Gov. Christie is mentally deranged" after an audiotape surfaced Wednesday of comments he made in June at a previously unheralded meeting.

On it, Christie is heard regaling an audience of GOP fund-raisers about how two days earlier he had nailed down Speaker Sheila Oliver's support for a controversial bill to have state workers pay more for their benefits.
In an interview Wednesday, Oliver called the governor's statements about her "outright lies" and said, "At no time did I ever, ever pick up the telephone, call Gov. Christie and ask him to 'save my leadership.' "

She said the governor was engaged in a "chest-thumping bravado entertainment session" for Republican donors.

"That to me is a characterization of someone that is not fit to lead the state. . . . I think it's disgraceful," Oliver said.

A spokesman for Christie said the governor stood by his story.

Asked about a deal with Oliver at a news conference in Atlantic City, Christie described it as "another example of the way we've found to work together."

Oliver's stinging rebuttal to Christie echoes one by Democratic state Senate President Steve Sweeney whom Christie also lauded as a "partner" in negotiations, against the majority of his party. Just days after the Vail event, however, as reported at Mojo today, Christie would reportedly pull the rug out from under Sweeney, leading the former union leader to tell The Star-Ledger that he "wanted to punch him in his head," and that he thought Christie was "a cruel man," "mean-spirited," and "a rotten prick."

Folks who reach across the aisle to work with Christie seem to end up very unhappy. Or at least they tell the press as much.

The Inquirer also cites a Republican Assemblyman who has no recollection of the meeting Christie described:

Assemblyman John Bramnick (R., Union) said that while there was Republican support for the governor and the speaker, he did not recall such a meeting.

The entire affair has left a lot of folks in New Jersey not knowing who or what to believe. Earlier yesterday, prior to Oliver's adamant denials, some progressives in the state told The BRAD BLOG they were considering a call for Oliver to step down in light of Christie's story.

Last night, Rosi Efthim, editor of Blue Jersey, one of the state's most influential progressive blogs, filed a very comprehensive report headlined "Christie outs Oliver as his puppet in secret Koch Bros. meeting we weren't supposed to know about".

"No matter which account you believe - if either - what we learned today confirms something is very wrong in the way decisions are made in New Jersey," she writes. "This story may unleash a war of words between the GOP governor and the Democratic Speaker, a breaking of the confederacy between them that has infuriated so many Democrats. ... The possibility that Oliver may now wiggle out from under Christie's thumb and begin to lead as she was elected to do, keeps us from calling [for] her ouster from leadership."

Efthim goes on to charge: "This story is a tangle of conflicting accounts that spotlights so much of what is wrong with New Jersey politics as we witness it. Lies (one's lying, the other telling the truth, or both lie). Back-room decisions conducted by shadow powers. Failure of bi-partisanship. Capitulation to a unitary executive. A meglomaniac governor."

She goes on to list a number of "troubling issues" raised about Christie, such as why he failed to list the Koch event on his calendar, why he concealed the trip, and "What else does he fail to disclose?"

"What is a governor who campaigned on transparency doing speaking at [a] GOP donor event so secretive that audio speakers around the periphery of the venue blasted static to thwart eavesdroppers?"

"What is the quid pro quo between our governor and" the Kochs, she now wonders.

She also sees "troubling issues" raised about Oliver, the state's first African-American woman Speaker whose behavior on the pension and benefits bill had already "diminishe[d] her." Christie's version of the story, however, if true, "would explain her behavior," writes Efthim.

Looks like we've helped to unleash a hornets' nest in NJ. Good.

And we thank Efthim for her kind closing thoughts: "We should be indebted to BradBlog and to Mother Jones for breaking this story. Sometimes the truth will out only in 'alternative' media."

AND FINALLY: Speaking of truth in the alternative media, while I've been doing a lot of interviews concerning the Koch stories on other folks' shows, I covered it Wednesday afternoon on my own Pacifica Radio show on KPFK here in Los Angeles. I was joined by Gavin Aronsen, Mother Jones fact-checker and author of "The Koch Brothers' Million-Dollar Donor Club," the superb companion piece to my Part 1, in which he detailed the backgrounds of those who had been named by Charles Koch during his opening remarks as having given more than one million dollars to the Koch's political machine over the past 12 months.

Desi Doyen of The BRAD BLOG's Green News Report also joined us to discuss the RGGI and Climate Change denial aspect of the entire fine Koch/Christie mess.

Download MP3 or listen online below [appx 28 mins]...

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