Chris Christie
CNN  — 

A former top lawyer to Chris Christie who counseled the then-New Jersey governor through the Bridgegate ethics scandal sparred on Tuesday with senators scrutinizing his nomination to serve as a federal judge on the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Paul Matey attempted to distance himself from the episode and called it “the unfortunate act of several individuals who decided to take matters outside of the law and into their own hands.”

“It’s important to make clear for the record that I had no knowledge, involvement or participation in any of those events,” Matey said. “We certainly took steps to ensure at all times that the highest standards of propriety, ethics and legality were followed in the office. Regrettably, that did not appear to happen in this case.”

Matey is the latest in a string of nominees with controversial resumes that have punctuated a record-breaking push by the Trump administration to reshape the federal judiciary in a conservative mold.

Along the way, a handful of nominees have had their nominations withdrawn, including one tapped for a circuit court, Ryan Bounds, whose past writings were considered by lawmakers to be insensitive.

The Senate has so far confirmed 29 of President Donald Trump’s nominees for powerful appellate judgeships, a feat underpinned by close coordination among Senate Republicans, the White House and outside legal groups.

Matey, who also served in the US Attorney’s Office in New Jersey under Christie, was recommended to the White House for the seat on the federal bench by his former boss, according to a questionnaire Matey submitted to the Judiciary Committee.

As an assistant US attorney, Matey prosecuted white-collar crime and health care fraud cases, including a 2009 case involving a financial adviser convicted of swindling his clients out of more than $9 million. In 2010, Matey followed Christie to the state’s capital, ultimately becoming a deputy chief counsel to the popular Republican.

Christie, a close Trump ally, has in recent days been mentioned as a potential attorney general nominee.

On Tuesday, Matey denied involvement in a list of other Christie scandals ticked off by Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.

“So many of the scandals it’s hard to – we don’t have time to go through all of them,” Leahy said.

Matey’s involvement in the fallout of Bridgegate, a political retribution scheme that saw lane closures on a section of the George Washington Bridge snarl traffic in Fort Lee, New Jersey, appears limited – reports prepared for the state Legislature and governor’s office mention only an internal questioning of a Christie aide he made as the scandal emerged.

Matey was also behind the firing of one of the Christie aides later indicted for her role in the scandal, according to the 2016 book “American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption,” by Matt Katz, who covered Christie’s administration for years.

Two former officials linked to the governor’s office were sentenced last year after being found guilty of federal conspiracy and fraud charges. An appeal of the case is before the 3rd Circuit, which is based in Philadelphia.

Matey’s hearing Tuesday came despite the disapproval of his nomination by his home state senators.

Democrats on Tuesday protested the eschewing of that norm, referred to as the “blue slip” process, which has under recent committee chairmen allowed members of the party in opposition to the White House to block judicial nominees.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee, repeated his stance on the blue slip process in an opening statement.

“My policy is that unreturned or negative blue slips will not necessarily preclude a hearing for a circuit-court nominee, unless the White House failed to consult with home-state senators,” Grassley said, contending that it was consistent with decades of past committee leadership.

Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a member of the Judiciary Committee, pushed back on Grassley’s assertion that the White House had meaningfully consulted with him on the nomination and said it was “insulting” that Trump aides had not set up a meeting between him and Matey ahead of the hearing.

Some outside groups have expressed concern about Matey’s involvement in the Federalist Society, an influential conservative legal group that has held behind-the-scenes sway in the selection of judges and Supreme Court justices in the Trump administration. Matey has been a member of the group since 2001 and he led his state’s chapter for several years, according to the questionnaire he submitted to the Senate.

In a letter earlier this month, Vanita Gupta, the former acting head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division under the Obama administration, called Matey a “conservative ideologue” and dinged the Federalist Society as an “out-of-the-mainstream legal organization.”

Gupta, now the head of the DC-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also criticized Matey for writing in his committee questionnaire that he had performed no pro bono legal work since becoming an attorney.

She said Matey was the only Trump judicial nominee to say that he had provided no free legal services outside of his professional duties.

Pressed on his lack of pro bono experience in Tuesday’s hearing, Matey said his years in public service had “constrained my position to take on outside clients,” but he detailed past work that had affected under-served communities, including a prison re-entry program he started at a hospital in Newark where he was general counsel after leaving the governor’s office in 2015.