John Hoffman
John Hoffman (Office of the Attorney General (N.J.))

At a budget hearing on Tuesday, Gov. Chris Christie’s attorney general defended the hiring of outside counsel to conduct an internal investigation of the administration’s potential involvement in the Bridgegate scandal.

John Hoffman fielded questions about the $650 hourly fee charged by the firm, New York’s Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, for preparing the report that exonerated Christie and his office.

“You might find this difficult to believe, but” $650 per hour is “a significantly discounted rate for Gibson Dunn” and “slightly higher than what a first-year associate at Gibson Dunn bills out,” Hoffman told Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen.

Sarlo said the rate is about $300 higher than that charged by Reid Schar of Chicago’s Jenner & Block, counsel for the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation, which has amassed just under $250,000 in fees.

Hoffman called Gibson Dunn “one of the biggest law firms in the country” and the rates “reflective of…[a] significant discount from what are typical rates in New York and Washington, D.C.”

Gibson Dunn hasn’t sent a bill yet, but Hoffman said that’s not unusual. “When a firm takes on a complex engagement, it’s fairly common for the initial bill to lag anywhere between two months sometimes to upwards of five or six months,” he said.

Sarlo asked if fee caps were imposed and Hoffman said no. “There are some types of engagements in which we do set caps, but they’re generally transactional project engagements. With regard to work for which the time period is not easily defined, it’s very rare, if ever, that we would set a cap,” he said.

Hoffman also defended the use of Gibson Dunn to conduct the internal investigation at the same time it advises Christie’s administration in connection with probes by the legislative panel and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey.

“The Gibson Dunn firm does not represent individuals; the Gibson Dunn firm represents the office of the governor,” Hoffman said, replying to Sarlo’s question about potential conflicts.

“Frankly I don’t see a conflict—I actually see a number of efficiencies that are created by one firm being able to…look at those documents just once, determine whether they’re responsive to a subpoena, whether there are any privileges that apply, and at the same time be able to draw any conclusions that they would be asked to draw,” he added.

He noted that outside counsel, as a condition of retainer, is typically the one that checks for conflicts.

The Attorney General’s Office does typically determine, as per statute, who is entitled to taxpayer-funded legal counsel and does “plays somewhat of a gatekeeper role” in what firm ultimately is hired as outside counsel, Hoffman noted.

He declined to say whether independent counsel would be needed if federal prosecutors asked his office to look into possible state law violations.

“I think it’s in everybody’s best interest to kind of lay out what is this going to cost the state of New Jersey,” Sarlo said.

Hoffman agreed to share Gibson Dunn’s bills when they’re received.

Asked if Gibson Dunn was doing any other state work, Hoffman said the firm is defending the state in a suit by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the four major sports leagues seeking to invalidate a New Jersey law that legalized sports wagering, which has cost the state slightly more than $3 million so far.

Hoffman has been the state’s acting attorney general since last June.

Contact the reporter at dgialanella@alm.com.