Meanwhile, it is Egea who is in the crosshairs of investigators who want to know whether she told O’Dowd, Christie, or other officials in the governor’s office about Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye’s September 13 email -- forwarded to her that day by Baroni -- charging that the George Washington Bridge lane closures violated the law. And if she did not report it up the line, investigators will want to know why not.
The flurry of investigations and subpoenas will put Egea’s decision and other internal workings of Christie’s governor’s office on public display. Perhaps in anticipation of that outcome, Randy Mastro, the high-profile lawyer Christie brought in to handle his administration’s response to the flood of subpoenas, also has been charged by Christie with analyzing the “information flow” within his office.
Comella, Drewniak, and press spokesman Colin Reed yesterday failed to respond to emailed requests for comment.
To Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), who has been leading the legislative investigation, the Bridgegate scandal and its coverup is a question of the culture Christie engenders among his inner circle.
In announcing the appointments of Egea and Porrino on December 2, Christie declared, “I’ve said all along in these jobs you’re only as good as the people around you,” adding that he valued two qualities above all others. “You can’t teach smart and you can’t teach loyal.”
It is the conflict between “smart” and “loyal” in the Christie administration that puzzles those who have served in high-level posts under previous Republican and Democratic governors. To them, the key question is why no one in Christie’s governor’s office – an office in which at least seven staffers knew there were questions being raised about the propriety of the George Washington Bridge lane closures -- felt comfortable enough to tell Christie that they had doubts about the closures or that they could cause future problems for the administration. Christie insists he was “blindsided” when he read the Kelly email on January 8.
“Each governor’s office is different. But there’s a perception out there that no one in this governor’s office can walk into the governor’s private office, shut the door behind him, and tell the governor no,” said one former high-ranking official who asked not to be identified. “The inner circle in a governor’s office is a small group, and the chiefs, the deputy chiefs, and top communications people meet together and talk all the time.
“You have to be able to rely on the people sitting outside your door 12 to 14 hours a day,” the former official said. “They need to be able to tell you you’ve made a mistake or that other people you trust may have made a mistake. Ultimately, it’s a question of protecting the governor, and that didn’t happen here.”
That responsibility for protecting the governor now falls on Egea, whose handling of the September 13 Foye memo is a focal point of the legislative probe and whose new role as Christie’s chief of staff makes her the governor’s gatekeeper.
“It has to be especially hard for Egea dealing with a new job plus dealing with all of this,” said David Rousseau, who was serving as state treasurer when Gov. Jon Corzine’s near-fatal auto accident incapacitated him for several months.
“We were luckier on the timing than Christie because Jon had already given his budget speech, he was able to turn over the duties of serving as interim governor to Dick Codey, who had already been acting governor, and Jon got back by the time we had to finalize the budget.”
As to Christie’s selection of Egea, “I was actually surprised when she was named chief of staff, because she’s doesn’t have the political background you would want in a chief of staff going into a presidential election,” Rousseau said. “Obviously, he was bringing her in more as a manager, with the idea that (longtime Christie political advisers) Bill Palatucci, Mike DuHaime, and Bob Grady would be calling the political shots.”
While Palatucci, DuHaime, and Grady will handle the long-range political strategy for Christie, it’s unclear who will take over as the governor’s political point man on a day-to-day basis -- the role filled by Stepien, the 35-year-old Karl Rove-in-waiting whom Christie decided to sever ties with on January 9, the same day he fired Kelly.
Stepien served as Christie’s political right arm as campaign manager for both his 2009 and 2013 races, and as deputy chief of staff for legislative relations and intergovernmental affairs in the governor’s office for more than three years in between. Christie had already hired him as consultant for the Republican Governors Association and had just nominated him to serve as the chairman of the New Jersey Republican Party two days before he fired him.
With Stepien running the state GOP and directing Christie’s Republican Governors Association fundraising efforts heading into 2016, Stepien’s protégé, Kelly, had been filling Stepien’s chair as the deputy chief of staff running Christie’s political operations out of the governor’s office. But now Kelly, too, is gone, and the position she and Stepien occupied over the past four years remains unfilled.