NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has remained especially close to his high school friends.
He launched his campaign for president in his old high school gymnasium, checks in by phone and attends reunions. But he’s also made a habit of selecting old classmates for plum state positions, judgeships among them.
An Associated Press review of his senior class yearbook, state payroll records, agency websites and state press releases found that nearly a half dozen of Christie’s former high school classmates have ended up in state positions since he took office. That number increases at least to a dozen if Christie’s 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 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 campaign for governor.
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The pattern also provides insight into how Christie, 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.
“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.”
Christie defends his hiring choices.
“I know them, I trust them and they wanted to serve,” he said in an interview before his 35th high school reunion 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 said the state Senate had to confirm many of the jobs, “so there’s certainly check-and-balance there.” And the high school, former classmates said, was very large, with nearly 600 people in Christie’s graduating class.
As governor, Christie is responsible for appointing or nominating 5,000 or more positions across the state, some uncompensated, according to spokesman Kevin Roberts.
In no case did Christie appear to appoint or nominate friends 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.
“Rick and I grew up together,” Christie said. “We met each other in high school and became instant friends. He added: “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 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,” Sules 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.
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.
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.