Months of Investigations Loom to Haunt Christie in Bridgegate
Governor’s apology, staff firings won’t blunt probes; Wildstein is first to take the Fifth
- Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
A chastened Gov. Chris Christie did everything he could yesterday to quell the burgeoning Bridgegate scandal, but the investigations are likely to continue for months, with an Assembly committee preparing to subpoena a parade of current and former Christie officials and with probes by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a U.S. Senate committee just getting underway.
For Christie, the slew of investigations and accompanying media scrutiny threaten not only to undercut his appeal as a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, but also will distract attention from the public policy agenda he will set out for his second term in his State of the State speech Tuesday and his Inaugural Address the following week.
“We’re going to take as long as we need to get all of the questions answered,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) promised. “We’re all shocked by what has come out.”
Just two months after his ebullient, triumphant reelection speech in Asbury Park’s Convention Hall, it was a much different Christie who walked slowly out to the podium in the governor’s office yesterday to explain to three rows of reporters, two banks of news cameras, and a national TV audience why he didn’t know that one of his top aides had ordered the controversial George Washington Bridge lane closures.
Saying he was, Christie yesterday fired Bridget Anne Kelly, his deputy chief of staff, as well as Bill Stepien, the campaign strategist who managed his two winning gubernatorial campaigns, apologized over and over during an agonizing 108-minute Statehouse press conference, then traveled up the New Jersey Turnpike to personally apologize to the mayor and people of Fort Lee.
A "heartbroken" Gov. Chris Christie talks about firing top aides and apologizing to the people of Fort Lee in this excerpt from his marathon press conference.
But while Christie was apologizing in the governor’s office,, Christie’s political “eyes and ears” in the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was preparing to take the Fifth Amendment more than 30 times before the Assembly Transportation Committee in the Statehouse Annex next door.
Christie’s personal day of atonement will undoubtedly be followed by a few more mea culpas in TV interviews and in his State of the State speech Tuesday, but it was Wildstein’s dazed expression as he was unanimously found to be in contempt of the Legislature that is the new face of the Bridgegate scandal and the investigations that promise to crowd the political calendar for the next several months:
Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) announced that his panel would subpoena Kelly and Stepien to follow Wildstein into the witness chair, and that Port Authority Chairman David Samson, former Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and Christie press secretary Michael Drewniak would be subpoenaed to testify later. The Wisniewski committee plans to release more than 900 pages of emails and documents subpoenaed from Wildstein today.
The United States Attorney’s Office in Newark, where Christie made his reputation as a corruption-busting prosecutor, announced it was launching a formal investigation at the invitation of the Port Authority’s Office of Inspector General to determine whether any federal laws were broken in the politically motivated George Washington Bridge lane closures that snarled traffic in Fort Lee for four days.
The U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee chaired by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV) has launched its own inquiry into the Bridgegate scandal and is awaiting the delivery of documents due from the Port Authority by Wednesday. Rockefeller’s committee has urged U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to conduct a full investigation of the lane closures.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), whose district includes Fort Lee, has sponsored a resolution that passed the Senate State Government Committee yesterday calling upon Congress to conduct a full review of the structure and operations of the Port Authority, a bistate agency whose dysfunctional partisan divisions have been exposed by the Bridgegate scandal.
Six Bergen County commuters filed a class action lawsuit yesterday against Christie, Wildstein, Baroni, and Kelly charging that they were stuck in traffic, missed work, and suffered pay losses as a result of the George Washington Bridge closures.
Veteran Statehouse observers yesterday could not recall a time when a witness before a New Jersey legislative committee took the Fifth Amendment, nor could they recall a series of public investigative hearings by a committee with subpoena powers that could potentially drag on for months in the public eye. Yesterday’s hearing was the third hearing since November in which the Wisniewski committee has questioned current or former Port Authority officials on the Bridgegate scandal.