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ASBURY PARK, N.J. — For a pricey admission, New Jersey taxpayers now have a front-row seat to Gov. Chris Christie's national rehab from scandal.

After three months of press-dodging and largely evading public questions on the George Washington Bridge lane closures, the politically hobbled governor finally gets to tell his side of the saga, and on his own terms.

The cost to state taxpayers: $1 million.

On Thursday, his attorney, Randy Mastro, held a lengthy news conference exonerating Christie of responsibility in the four-day gridlock on the Fort Lee, N.J., side of the bridge. And in the evening, ABC aired an interview with Diane Sawyer, in which Christie portrays himself as distraught over "inexplicably stupid" decisions by former members of his staff.

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These are two calculating moves, experts say, for Christie to put the bridge scandal aside — for now — and focus on his second term, as well as broader ambitions.

Whether the investigation, which was ordered by Christie and paid for by taxpayers, was thorough and objective is another debate. But for now, while two independent investigations into the bridge scandal still are in progress, Christie has an opportunity to wave clean hands and turn the public's attention to matters he believes are more important.

"Anything that allows the governor to focus on his second-term agenda is a good thing for him," said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, Lawrenceville.

"The critical problem the Christie administration has faced is: the cloud of the (Superstorm) Sandy aid controversy and the bridge closure controversy has loomed over everything in Trenton. It's not as if everything there has shut down," he said.

It is not clear when the two other investigations — by the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Legislative Select Committee on Investigation — will be complete.

Christie's internal investigation, which was estimated by The New York Times to total $1 million, drew criticism from Democrats, including members of the legislative committee.

John Wisniewski, a Middlesex County Democrat who is the committee's co-chair, said the 360-page report reads "more like a novel than a work of fact."

"It seems like it's a rush to judgment to come to a conclusion to provide the governor with a talking point so he can attempt to put this controversy behind him. But the report has factual holes that I believe make it insufficient to accomplish that intended goal," he said.

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Davia Temin, who runs a crisis-management company in New York, said Christie should have ordered an investigation into the lane closure and he should have released the findings of the investigation shortly after it concluded. But "it might have been wiser to anticipate" blow back for hiring Mastro, who, like Christie, is a former federal prosecutor and is close to former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican like Christie.

"And when you commission something like this, you want to stop the questions, not raise more," she said.

Christie's internal investigation does have large holes. Investigators were unable to interview David Wildstein, the former director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the alleged mastermind of the lane closures; Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff; and Bill Stepien, Christie's former campaign manager. They also did not interview David Samson, the Port Authority chairman and a close Christie ally.

"If there were a report that cleared the governor, the most credible would be the one issued by the U.S. Attorney's Office. The second-most credible would be the joint legislative body," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. "This is a poor third."

Still, it gives Christie a chance to control the bridge scandal narrative. But Dworkin pointed out, "It still doesn't answer some key questions, and because it doesn't answer some key questions, it's not the end of this story."

Racioppi also writes for Asbury Park (N.J.) Press. Contributing: Michael Symons, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press

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