Christie chooses law dean as his office's ombudsman

Posted: April 19, 2014

Gov. Christie has named the dean of Seton Hall University School of Law to serve in the newly created position of ombudsman for his office - a step recommended by the review Christie commissioned as a result of the George Washington Bridge controversy.

Patrick Hobbs will serve "as an independent resource to the Office of the Governor and . . . as an impartial outlet for employees to raise concerns," Christie's office said in a statement Thursday.

Hobbs, who has served as dean for more than 13 years and is also chairman of a state watchdog agency, will be tasked with helping to hire a chief ethics officer and ensuring proper ethics training for employees.

He will have "complete autonomy," the office said.

Creation of an ombudsman position was recommended in the report recently released by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the law firm Christie hired to investigate the closures of lanes leading to the bridge and resulting scandal because of alleged political motivations.

The firm, whose report cleared Christie of wrongdoing, also recommended a stop to the use of personal e-mail accounts - which Christie aides used while communicating about the lane closures - and a disbanding of the Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs.

Staff in the office - some of whom volunteered on Christie's reelection campaign - at times received instructions not to return calls from certain mayors, according to summaries of interviews released this week by Gibson Dunn.

The governor's office said Thursday that Hobbs would work to revise its electronic communications policies.

The office also said the intergovernmental affairs unit would be replaced by an expanded Office of Community and Constituent Relations to respond to the public in a "nonpartisan fashion."

Critics have questioned the Gibson Dunn report's credibility, in part because several key figures - among them the two aides the firm blamed for the lane closures - were not interviewed for it.

The Christie administration is paying the firm $650 an hour for its work.

Hobbs said Thursday that he "certainly hoped" he would be perceived as independent in the ombudsman role.

"I can't speak for other people, but certainly I think my record speaks for itself," he said.

Hobbs, 54, of Basking Ridge, graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Law in 1985 before beginning his career as a tax attorney.

In 1990, Hobbs joined the faculty at Seton Hall. He became dean in 1999, and in 2004 began serving on the state Commission of Investigation, an independent agency that monitors corruption and government abuse.

Christie graduated from Seton Hall's law school in 1987.

In 2006, while Christie was U.S. attorney for New Jersey, he reached a deferred prosecution agreement with Bristol-Myers Squibb that benefited Seton Hall. The agreement required the pharmaceutical company to give $5 million to endow a chair at the law school.

Pushing back on criticism that Christie had abused his power, Hobbs, in a December 2006 letter to the Wall Street Journal, wrote that Christie had "been aggressive in fighting public corruption," and had handled cases involving corporations and health-care systems in a prudent manner.

"This hardly suggests someone wielding his power in an abusive manner," Hobbs wrote.

On Thursday, Hobbs - who said he has had a "professional relationship" with Christie for 15 years - said the Bristol-Myers Squibb arrangement would not compromise his new position.

Hobbs views Seton Hall as "the leading law school in the country for compliance training" for the pharmaceutical industry.

"That, clearly, is why we were thought of as the place where that chair would reside," he said.

Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said Hobbs was a registered Democrat and was first appointed to the State Commission of Investigation in 2004 by Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey.

Hobbs, who was appointed chairman of the commission by Christie in 2011, will resign from the agency to take on the role as Christie's ombudsman, a part-time position that will pay $75,000 a year. He will continue to serve as dean at Seton Hall.

He said his work with the investigation commission would serve as "a natural jump-off to this position."

While he will be focused on establishing a system for staff to voice concerns and ensuring proper ethics training, the role is "wide open," Hobbs said. He said he would be "taking a look at the entire functioning of the office."


mhanna@phillynews.com

609-989-8990 @maddiehanna

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