Okay, I’ll admit that I only covered this story, because I thought of that title for the post, and I really wanted to use it!
Bret Schundler didn’t call Governor Christie a liar.
Nor did Schundler say his ex-boss simply ignored the truth when Christie publicly lacerated the Obama administration for rejecting New Jersey’s bid for $400 million in Race to the Top education aid over a petty “clerical error.”
Schundler, fired by Christie on Friday morning, offered a more charitable explanation hours after his dismissal. Christie had simple hit one of his famous “grooves” — a full-scale rant, where anger and bombast bubble to a boil, Schundler explained. It’s in those not-so-uncommon moments when Christie is capable of saying just about anything.
Schundler called together a small group of reporters at his Jersey City brownstone, where he has lived since serving as the city’s mayor during the 1990s.
As Schundler detailed his role through copies of e-mails and recollections, he painted an unflattering portrait of Christie as truculent and predisposed to heap scorn on “Obamacrats” regardless of the true facts in the case.
Schundler says he explicitly warned Christie not to make certain claims in public. But he went ahead and said them anyway. And that set in motion a chain of events that has Schundler scrambling for a new job, and applying for unemployment benefits.
“I didn’t mislead the public,” Schundler said. “I’m really disappointed. I don’t think I should be terminated. I think I gave the governor good guidance.”
At the heart of the controversy is an apparent blunder — a nagging mystery even Schundler himself could not explain Friday — over the state’s failure to properly answer a fairly routine question in the 1,000-page application. Federal regulators docked New Jersey’s application 4.8 points because the state did not provide information from 2008 and 2009 budgets. The state provided information from 2011.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Christie took responsibility for the mistake, but then launched a diatribe against the U.S. Department of Education panelists reviewing New Jersey’s grant application, accusing them of being inflexible nitpickers.
To stress their bureaucratic intransigence, Christie said “when we went in for the personal interview two weeks before the decision was made they raised the issue with us. … Commissioner Schundler gave them, in the interview, the numbers for ’08 and ’09 because the mistake was raised. But they still didn’t give us the credit for the points.”
But a day later, the Department of Education released a videotape of that session that contradicted Christie. Pressed politely about the issue by a woman sounding like a soft-spoken public librarian, Schundler and aides are stunned and begin rifling through binders looking for the answer. They didn’t have the numbers for fiscal year 2008 and 2009. It wasn’t in the application or their briefcases. And nowhere on the tape is Schundler or their staff heard giving the panelists the information.
This left the embarrassed Christie fuming and, in a statement Friday, he blamed Schundler and his staff for giving him bad information. And he fired him.
But Schundler contradicted Christie on Friday. He said he made what had happened at the meeting “crystal clear” through e-mails and phone calls with Christie’s staff on Tuesday and with Christie on Wednesday. Schundler told them that he and the staff were blindsided by the blunder during the presentation — no one knew why the question wasn’t filled out properly. And even if they could provide the correct information, the issue was moot anyway. The strict rules did not allow them to amend their answer, and Schundler said they never bothered, during or after the presentation.
He stressed those points directly to Christie the next day when they talked before Christie’s press conference. And when the governor rehearsed several points he was going to make in his public swipe at the “picayune” Obamacrats, Schundler told him not to say them.
There is one nagging point in Schundler’s narrative. Schundler told Christie that he told the panel that the state “met the criteria” in the disputed question. But that never appears on the videotape.
Asked if Christie may have relied on Schundler’s foggy “met the criteria” claim as rationale to launch his attack, Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak flatly said “no,” and referred to his prepared statement, accusing Schundler of “engaging in revisionist history.”
Schundler has always had a reputation for talking too much and too much like a wonk who likes to show off his knowledge of arcane history and data. But this time he came with a stack of e-mails, and a story to tell and a career to defend, straining not to sound like a disgruntled employee.
He made a compelling case, but in the end, it’s his account against the governor’s, which makes it nearly impossible to referee. It’s worth noting that Christie’s Democratic enemies have accused him of playing fast and loose with facts and beating back critics with his bluster and rants. And now, here was a banished Christie insider saying essentially — albeit politely — the same thing.