TRENTON, N.J. — Besides serving as governor and running for president, Chris Christie has another job. As commander in chief of the New Jersey National Guard, he is in charge of 8,400 citizen soldiers, a militia that has become increasingly dysfunctional under his watch.
After he took office in 2010, Christie (R) reappointed a two-star Army general — a childhood friend — to lead the Guard. But the married general was forced to resign in disgrace after staff members caught him having an affair at work, documents show.
The governor’s next pick, an Air Force pilot, was secretly reprimanded by the Pentagon last year for his excessive waistline and for repeatedly ducking physical-fitness tests, according to records obtained by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act.
More recently, several high-ranking officers have filed whistleblower complaints, alleging that the Guard’s leadership is plagued by cronyism, racism and a “toxic” command climate, among other problems. State and federal officials have opened independent investigations. Legislators have pledged to hold hearings.
“It’s like the mob,” said Brian K. Scully, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who says he lost his job because he refused to help cover up the general’s affair. “One minute you’re the made man. The next, you get a bullet in the back of your head. Only here it’s career assassination.”
During his first term as governor, Christie and the New Jersey National Guard received praise for their response to Hurricane Sandy, a 2012 storm that devastated the state. Christie’s prompt mobilization of the Guard and his commanding presence in disaster zones elevated his national profile.
That experience “molded me as a leader,” he recalled in May as he prepared to announce his presidential bid.
A former federal prosecutor, Christie has campaigned on his reputation for unvarnished talk and an insistence on government accountability. Yet as he seeks to become the nation’s commander in chief, he has been publicly silent about the problems that have erupted in his militia’s upper ranks.
The discord threatens to become yet another hurdle for Christie to overcome in the GOP presidential contest. His poll numbers have been mired in the low single digits as he has struggled to cope with questions about his leadership in New Jersey — from the state’s fiscal mess to a still-unfolding scandal that began in 2013 when his aides intentionally snarled traffic on the George Washington Bridge to punish a political opponent.
Christie declined interview requests for this article. His staff said he was unaware that Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael L. Cunniff, the commander who still leads the Guard, had been reprimanded by the Pentagon about his weight until The Post asked about the issue.
As the state’s adjutant general, Cunniff reports directly to Christie and serves in his Cabinet.
“The Governor has expressed directly to the General that his failure to meet that standard or to provide notification of his formal reprimand is both unacceptable and disappointing,” Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said in an e-mailed statement.
Christie, he added, has given Cunniff 90 days to slim down and “meet his obligations.”
Failure to meet physical-fitness standards is a serious infraction in the military and can result in dismissal. But it is an especially delicate subject in New Jersey, where Christie had weight-loss surgery two years ago.
Cunniff declined an interview request. In a statement released by the Guard, he acknowledged that he had not met the Air Force’s fitness requirements in recent years.
“Many people struggle with weight control — I am not immune from this,” he said. “However, I do recognize that military members and leaders, like myself, are held to a higher standard. I take this matter seriously and am taking the necessary steps to remedy this issue.”
As in other states, the New Jersey National Guard is a reserve military force that primarily serves under the command and control of the governor, who can mobilize troops to respond to natural disasters or other emergencies. Units also can be called into federal service and deploy overseas.
Dissent began to bubble up last year. In April 2014, a group of junior officers wrote a letter to Christie to complain about a “demeaning and toxic” command culture in the militia.
The junior officers accused Cunniff and his deputy, Army Brig. Gen. James J. Grant, of not promoting minorities into senior jobs. They pleaded with Christie to investigate and to keep their identities secret so they would be protected from reprisals.
Two months later, Col. Walter Alvarado, the Army National Guard’s chief of staff and the highest-ranking Hispanic officer in the state, wrote a similar letter to Christie. He charged that the generals had blocked his advancement while promoting less-qualified white officers.
“There is a strong perception throughout the organization of racial bias — real or not, the perception is strong,” Alvarado wrote. He declined to comment for this article.
Discontent continued to spread. In December, Alvarado and three other senior officers, including the state chaplain, filed a harsher complaint with the Army inspector general at the Pentagon. That letter, which was copied to the governor, accused Cunniff and Grant of abuse of authority, fraud, waste, cronyism and other wrongdoing.
Cunniff, through a spokesman, declined to comment. Grant, who has since retired from the Guard, did not respond to an e-mail or a phone call.
In January, the mutiny reached the Internet. Parody videos were posted anonymously on YouTube, casting Cunniff and Grant as incompetent Nazi commanders. Messages posted with the videos begged Christie to investigate the leadership.
Michael Bobinis, a former Army major in the Guard, acknowledged to The Post that he posted the videos. He said he was terminated after his bosses found out.
“Only one person can fix this, and that’s Governor Christie,” Bobinis said. “It’s 100 percent on Christie’s shoulders. And he won’t do anything.”
In February, whistleblowers tried again to get the governor’s attention.
Alvarado and Col. John Langston, the Guard’s top African American officer, wrote another letter to Christie saying that the troops “have had enough.” They said the generals were promoting “mistrust, secrecy, intimidation, deception, favoritism, cronyism and unethical behavior.”
Langston declined to comment.
Christie’s spokesman confirmed that the governor’s office received that letter but said it had no record of the previous complaints.
“Once we were made aware of the allegations, the Governor’s office acted promptly to ensure they would be thoroughly and independently investigated,” Roberts, the press secretary, said in an e-mail.
But the Christie administration acted only after the Newark Star-Ledger, the state’s biggest newspaper, broke a story in March about the charges of racial discrimination and discord in the Guard.
The next month, state officials announced their hire of a former federal prosecutor to investigate the discrimination complaints.
The investigator, Matthew Boxer, worked under Christie when Christie served as the U.S. attorney for New Jersey. Boxer declined to comment while the inquiry is underway.
In May, the Star-Ledger uncovered more problems in the Guard, disclosing that four colonels had been convicted of drunken driving. The paper also reported that the adjutant general had been slow to hold the officers accountable, allowing two of them to keep their positions long after their arrests.
Patrick Daugherty, a Guard spokesman, defended the handling of the cases. He said commanders didn’t learn of the arrests right away and “took prompt action” once they did.
He declined to comment on specific allegations of discrimination but said such complaints “are welcomed” and will be thoroughly examined.
A survey this year of 3,000 New Jersey Guard members found that only 7 percent thought that their race, ethnicity or gender posed a barrier to career advancement, Daugherty said. “That tells us there are lots of things we’re doing right,” he added.
The Guard’s problems are emerging at an inopportune time for Christie and are unlikely to go away soon.
The state investigation is expected to make its findings public this year. Meanwhile, the Army inspector general is pursuing its own case. New Jersey lawmakers have said they will hold hearings after the state investigation wraps up.
“We’re still looking into it, and we’re still concerned about the allegations,” said Assemblywoman Cleopatra G. Tucker (D-Essex), chairman of the legislature’s Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “The public and our veterans and our National Guard people really need to be heard.”
Several current and former officers trace the start of the Guard’s problems to the downfall of the former adjutant general, Army Maj. Gen. Glenn K. Rieth.
Rieth was a holdover from the previous administration but was kept in the post by Christie. The two men knew each other from their childhood years in Livingston, N.J.
Two years into Christie’s first term, a staff sergeant working late at the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs walked into an office and was startled to see the married Rieth kissing a female state employee, according to documents recounting the episode.
The general also was caught on video by the building’s security systems, the documents show.
Two former Guard officers — Scully, who served as the general’s executive officer, and Bobinis, who oversaw the security systems — said they were pressured to hush up the incident. But it was ultimately reported to the Pentagon, triggering an investigation by the Army’s inspector general.
Rieth offered his resignation weeks later, in November 2011. But the Christie administration did not announce his departure until the Associated Press revealed the scandal — and even then said he was quitting because of a “personal matter.”
Army documents obtained by The Post under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Pentagon formally reprimanded Rieth for “engaging in an inappropriate relationship” with a woman who was not his wife. He did not respond to a phone call or an e-mail seeking comment.
Christie’s next pick to lead the Guard was Cunniff, a one-star Air Force commander. But Cunniff had a secret: He had been skipping his mandatory physical-fitness test because he knew he was too overweight to pass, according to an investigation the Air Force inspector general conducted last year.
Under Air Force rules, Cunniff was required to take the test annually. He told the inspector general that he knew he could not meet the requirements when he took charge of the Guard in December 2011, so he kept putting it off.
“I should have taken it the end of ’11 or, but, uh, I was kind of overcome by events, not really an excuse, an explanation, though, uh, I took the job under some pretty difficult conditions,” he testified, according to the inspector general’s report. “And, uh, you know, it was never my intent to bypass, uh, the system or get away with anything.”
Cunniff finally took a fitness test in November 2013, his first in more than three years. He flunked when his waist size was measured at 43.5 inches — 4.5 inches larger than what was allowed.
Two weeks later, an anonymous tipster reported Cunniff to the inspector general, saying that his physical condition was “a joke” and that it was “hypocritical and unethical” to hold himself to a different standard than subordinates.
Cunniff received a formal reprimand from Air Force officials at the Pentagon in April 2014. But he never mentioned it to the governor, according to Christie’s office.
In his statement to The Post, Cunniff said he has begun “a rigorous physical fitness training program” and has sought help from a nutritionist to enable him to pass the test.
“Just as I afford every opportunity to each Soldier and Airman to meet these standards, so will I,” he said.