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Governor Backs Off Pension Threat, Dismisses Media Focus On Bridgegate

But Christie’s disclosure that he asked top aides to look into Foye’s allegations in October raises important new questions

chris christie
Credit: Amanda Brown

With subpoenaed documents trickling in to investigators and a second top aide taking the Fifth Amendment in the Bridgegate probe, Gov. Chris Christie last night broke a 25-day silence with new disclosures on the scandal that has crippled his administration and tried to shift attention to policy with the announcement that he would indeed make the $2.4 billion pension payment due this year.

Declaring that he would not allow the ongoing investigations “to dominate my time like it does people in the media and some partisans,” Christie opened his new public relations offensive on a friendly radio station with the assertion that Democratic legislative leaders and reporters were “getting in front of their skis” with their assumption that he was not planning to include the full pension payment required by the law he signed in 2011 in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget he is scheduled to unveil on February 25.

“That’s not what I said,” Christie insisted on New Jersey 101.5-FM’s monthly “Ask the Governor” program. “What I said was we’re not going to be able to fund the other programs we all want if we don’t address the exploding costs of pension payments and debt service.” He added, “If I wanted to say ‘I’m not going to make the pension payment,’ I would have said ‘I’m not going to make the pension payment.’”

Christie’s pension comments in his January 14 State of the State speech, followed by press spokesman Colin Reed’s pointed refusal to confirm whether Christie intended to make the full $2.4 billion pension payment, prompted Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), chief sponsor of the controversial pension bill, to threaten last week to shut down the state government July 1 if Christie reneged. It was a point that Sweeney undoubtedly brought up when he and new Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) met with Christie yesterday, although Christie refused to discuss their conversation.

For Christie, the pension announcement -- coupled with the earlier announcement by his Sandy czar, Marc Ferzan, of a new $1.46 billion Sandy relief plan -- was clearly intended to underscore the governor's message last night that he would not allow the rash of investigations by the Legislature, U.S. Attorney, Port Authority’s Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Senate committee and a federal housing agency to interfere with his performance over the next four years.

Raising New Questions

But Christie’s comments last night -- his first since his marathon 108-minute January 9 news conference in which he announced the firings of longtime campaign strategist Bill Stepien and Bridget Kelly, his deputy chief of staff who had emailed the Port Authority’s David Wildstein that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” -- nevertheless raised important new questions about Bridgegate.

Further, they undoubtedly raised expectations among federal and legislative investigators about what they should find as documents, emails, and other communications are produced by the governor’s office, his reelection campaign, and those administration and Port Authority officials who comply with their subpoenas.

The most important revelation on Bridgegate last night was Christie’s disclosure that he specifically asked his chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, and his chief counsel, Charlie McKenna, to look into the allegations raised in an October 1 Wall Street Journal story that quoted the September 13 email by Patrick Foye, the Port Authority’s executive director, ordering the toll lanes from Fort Lee heading into the George Washington Bridge to be reopened and declaring that federal and state laws might have been broken by their closure.

“I read it in the Wall Street Journal,” Christie said. “And it was that day then when I read that Pat Foye was saying, ‘I didn’t know about this. It wasn’t cleared through me.’ And whatever else he said in that email. That’s when I asked my chief of staff and chief counsel. I said to them 'Hey, would you look into this and see what’s going on here?'”

Investigators will now be looking for communications pertaining to that request by O’Dowd, whom Christie has nominated to serve as Attorney General, and McKenna, who has since moved over to run the Schools Development Authority, in the subpoenaed documents, and will want to know just how extensive an inquiry they conducted -- an issue that potentially could torpedo O’Dowd’s nomination to serve as the state’s highest law enforcement official if it goes to the Democratic-controlled Senate.

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