NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie launched his campaign for president in his high school gymnasium, surrounded by old friends.
“Everything started here for me: the confidence, the education, the friends, the family and the love that I’ve always felt for and from this community,” he told the crowd at Livingston High school.
Christie has remained especially close to his high school friends. He checks in by phone and attends reunions. But he’s also made a habit of appointing and nominating his former classmates to plum state positions, including judgeships. An Associated Press review of his senior class yearbook, state payroll records, agency websites and state press releases found that a handful of Christie’s former high school classmates have ended up in state positions since he took office. That number increases to nearly a dozen if Christie’s former classmates from Seton Hall law school are counted.
The hires include a name that haunts Christie. David Wildstein is a former ally and top staffer at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He pleaded guilty to orchestrating the traffic jam scandal that has badly tarnished the governor’s reputation. Christie has said the two barely knew each other at Livingston, although Wildstein was the statistician on the school’s baseball team — Christie played catcher — and the two volunteered together on Tom Kean’s gubernatorial campaign.
The pattern also provides insight into how the governor, whose is known for his fierce loyalty to his staffers, might approach hiring if wins his longshot bid for the Republican nomination and makes it to the White House.
Christie, who is competing against more than a dozen candidates, defended his hiring choices.
“I know them, I trust them and they wanted to serve,” he said in an interview ahead of his 35th high school reunion earlier this year. “I think you wind up with a lot of people who you meet at different stages of your life when you get to a position like this who, if you know them, you like them, you trust them and they want to serve, that you reach out to them.”
Christie also argued that the state senate had to confirm many of the jobs, “so there’s certainly (a) check and balance there.”
And the high school, former classmates noted, was very large, with nearly 600 people in Christie’s graduating class.
In his role as governor, Christie is responsible for appointing or nominating 5,000 or more positions across the state, including uncompensated and judicial roles, according to spokesman Kevin Roberts.
“It’s quite unusual,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group based in Washington. “That is not a prudent or wise way of making political appointments or judicial appointments. One should look out to people who most deserve the appointments, not to close personal friends.”
In no case did Christie appear to appoint or nominate candidates who were obviously not qualified or lacked relevant experience. But in several cases, he specifically cited his close relationships with them as among their qualifications.
In December, Christie stood at the front of an opulent courtroom at the Essex County Historic Courthouse in Newark to swear in Richard Sules as superior court judge. Sules had spent his career as an attorney in New York and New Jersey. But he also had another helpful credential: He went to Livingston with the governor.
“I remember Rick and I discussing this, unbelievably, fairly soon after I became governor of New Jersey in 2010, and I spoke to Rick about the possibility of him going on the bench and he told me it was something he was interested in doing,” Christie told the audience.
“Rick and I grew up together. We met each other in high school and became instant friends,” he said, adding: “I’ve watched the way he deals with others now for 37 years. And what I know about him is that his heart is as impressive as his mind.”
In an interview, Sules said he expressed an interest in a judgeship early in Christie’s first term and said it made sense for the governor to look to people with whom he had longstanding relationships.
“When you know someone that long, you get a pretty good sense of who they really are,” he said.
A month later, Christie was speaking at another superior court judge’s swearing-in ceremony — this time in Toms River, for Robert Brenner, another Livingston grad.
Christie told those gathered that he and Brenner had met as sophomores but really bonded as law-school study partners. They became so close that Brenner was in Christie’s wedding party.
Among the guests in the courtroom that day, NJ.com reported at the time: Hudson County Superior Court Judge Lisa Rose, Passaic County Superior Court Judge Rudolph Filko and Judge Maria Del Valle Koch, of the court of compensation. All were in the same Seton Hall law school class and were appointed or re-appointed by the governor — though Filko was first appointed before Christie’s term.
Others have found posts outside the courtroom.
Anthony Della Pelle, who attended both Livingston and Seton Hall, served on Christie’s transition team and was appointed to the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority as a commissioner, which he noted was an unpaid volunteer position.
And Tom Flarity, who serves as the director of security and investigations at the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, also graduated with Christie, but said the two hadn’t been friends or hadn’t stayed in touch.
New Jersey Civil Service Commission Chairman Robert M. Czech also graduated from Seton Hall with Christie in 1987, though a spokesman said that Czech went to school at night and didn’t know the governor.
Andrew Berns graduated from Livingston several years before the governor but became friends with Christie during law school. The governor appointed him to his transition team and to the Rutgers University Board of Trustees.
Berns now is chairman of the New Jersey State Ethics Commission, where he weighs in on ethical questions involving the governor’s office — including conflicts of interest.
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