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Governor Backs Off Pension Threat, Dismisses Media Focus On Bridgegate

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.

Specifically, investigators will want to know whether O’Dowd and McKenna talked to:

  • Port Authority Chairman David Samson, Christie’s 2009 campaign counsel who is in the middle of both the Bridgegate and Hoboken scandals, and who tried to get the Port Authority’s vice chairman, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to keep Foye from making his allegations public.

  • Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, who prepped with Philip Kwon, whom Christie sent over to the Port Authority as deputy counsel after his state Supreme Court nomination was rejected by the Democratic Senate, for four or five days before insisting to the Assembly Transportation Committee at a hearing in late November that the lane closures had been part of a legitimate traffic study. Baroni resigned in December.

  • David Wildstein, Christie’s political enforcer at the Port Authority, who ordered the lane closures at Kelly’s direction, is currently seeking immunity in exchange for his testimony, and alleged Friday that “evidence” exists showing that Christie knew of the lane closures while they were still in effect.

  • Regina Egea, the director of the Authorities Unit in the governor’s office, who received the Foye email from Baroni without a cover note on September 13, a few hours after Foye wrote it.

  • Kelly, who served under O’Dowd as deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, replacing Stepien when he went to run Christie’s 2013 reelection campaign.

Taking the Fifth

Kelly yesterday followed Stepien’s announcement Friday in declaring through her lawyer that she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure in refusing to provide documents subpoenaed by the Joint Select Committee on Investigations co-chaired by Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).

Meanwhile, one of Kelly’s top aides, Christina Genovese Renna, who served as director of intergovernmental affairs, became the fifth current or former Christie appointee subpoenaed by the Joint Select Committee on Investigations to resign or be fired.

“I left my position in the governor’s office effective Friday, January 31,” Renna announced in a statement released by her lawyer, Henry E. Klingeman. “This reflects a decision I have been considering since shortly after the election. I have spent almost four years working hard for a governor I continue to respect and admire. The transition from term one to term two is a natural time to pursue an opportunity in the private sector.”

Investigators, however, will want to know whether Renna had knowledge of the political motivations for the George Washington Bridge lane closures, which were allegedly ordered by Kelly to punish Fort Lee Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich for his failure to endorse Christie for reelection -- as Sokolich seemed to indicate in his email to Kelly and Stepien asking if he was being punished.

Emails submitted by Wildstein in response to an earlier subpoena showed Renna apologizing to Kelly on September 12 because another staffer in the governor’s office, identified only as “Evan,” inadvertently took a call from Sokolich, whose calls evidently were intentionally being ignored during the September 9-13 shutdown by Kelly’s department, which is responsible for communications and outreach to local government officials.

“The mayor told Evan that he has no idea why Port Authority decided to do this, but there is a feeling in town that it is government retribution for something,” Renna wrote to Kelly. “He simply can’t understand why that would be the case however, because he has always been so supportive of the governor. Sokolich explained that the Council wants to organize a press conference with picketers at the foot of the bridge. The Mayor feels he is about to lose control of the situation and that he looks like a ‘f----ing idiot.’”

In yet another example of the Christie administration’s maze of entanglements, Renna is married to Michael Renna, who was a senior vice president of South Jersey Industries, whose subsidiary, South Jersey Gas, unsuccessfully sought approval from the Pinelands Commission to build a 22-mile pipeline through the preserve to connect with its BL England plant in December. The project became a subject of controversy when environmentalists charged that the governor’s office improperly went to state Ethics Commission to get an environmentalist member of the panel barred from voting on dubious grounds.

Unlike Kelly, Christina Renna will be cooperating with investigators, her lawyer said. “She intends to comply with the subpoena, but the committee’s counsel has given her an extension of time to do so,” Klingeman responded by email yesterday.

Renna is not alone in requesting extra time from the legislative committee to comply with its subpoenas, which were due yesterday.

“The committee has begun receiving material responsive to its subpoenas, with more response expected in the near future in a cooperative effort with subpoena recipients,” Wisniewski and Weinberg announced in a joint statement yesterday afternoon. “Numerous extensions have been granted to subpoena recipients, as is typical in such situations.”

Christie said last night that the governor’s office “didn’t ask for an extension,” but would submit documents to the legislative committee “on a rolling basis.” He noted that his office has hired Randy Mastro, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney under Rudy Giuliani, who has been Christie’s most vocal defender on national news shows, to conduct an internal investigation.

“What I’m curious about is what happened here,” Christie said. “I can’t wait for them to be finished . . . What’s going on now with all this other stuff is just a game of gossip,” referring to the media’s focus on what the governor knew and when he knew it.

Christie, whose aides launched an all-out assault Saturday on Wildstein’s credibility in an email to supporters Saturday, offered his own explanation last night.

“I know that prior to that (the Wall Street Journal’s October 1 report on the Foye email), there were press accounts about traffic issues up there and you know if someone, if I either read that or someone said something to me about traffic issues up there, it wouldn’t have been meaningful to me,” he said. “I didn’t know that there was any problem up there because you know I didn’t know that we had actually closed lanes up there before that.”

Breaking Silence

For Christie, the decision to break his 25 days of silence on New Jersey 101.5’s “Ask the Governor” program was a logical one. The governor sounded like his usual ebullient self as he joked with callers last night to a radio station whose listenership has always been pro-Christie -- in sharp contrast to the crowd of football fans who booed the subdued Christie in New York City Saturday during a pre-Super Bowl event.

Christie is unlikely to subject himself soon to unfriendly crowds, much less a full-blown press conference with reporters eager to ask questions about Bridgegate and its coverup, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegation that Christie administration officials threatened to withhold Sandy aid if she did not push through a politically connected development, or his former Attorney General’s firing of a Hunterdon County prosecutor who tried to bring charges against the Republican county sheriff during Christie’s first year.

Scott did not ask at all about Hoboken or Hunterdon, but he did ask a few open-ended questions about Bridgegate, and Christie used his response to emphasize, as his staff did Friday in response to Wildstein’s allegation, that he should be judged on whether he ordered the lane closures, not on how he responded in the four months that followed. “Eric, listen let’s make one thing clear right off the bat, which I think is the most important issue and the most important issue is did I know anything about the plan to close these lanes? Did I authorize it? Did I know about it? Did I approve it? Did I have any knowledge of it beforehand and the answer is still the same, it’s unequivocally no,” he said. “And in fact, no one has ever accused me of that and that’s the thing that I think people in New Jersey care about the most.”

To New Jersey Democratic Chairman John Currie, Christie’s defense is setting the bar too low.

"Sadly, as predicted, Gov. Christie was not interested in answering the pressing questions that New Jerseyans have about the serious failures and potential illegalities of his administration,” Currie said in a statement. “And, unfortunately, now there are more new questions.

"Was superstorm Sandy funding used inappropriately? How could George Washington Bridge access lanes have been closed by Christie's top lieutenants without his knowledge, awareness, or even curiosity?” he asked. “After an hour of screened questions, the only thing we really learned is that Gov. Christie thinks the frustrating breakdown of his administration is just a distraction brewed up by others,” Currie said.

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