Senior Christie administration officials were told last fall that Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly and Campaign Manager Bill Stepien knew in advance about the George Washington Bridge lane closures, but failed to conduct a thorough investigation to root out the truth until after Kelly’s infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email came out over two months later.
Michael Drewniak, Gov. Chris Christie’s press secretary, testified yesterday that he reported the allegations about Kelly and Stepien to Charles McKenna, Christie’s chief counsel, in late October or early November. Drewniak’s testimony confirms that “there was a level of knowledge in the governor’s office” about Bridgegate much earlier than Christie has acknowledged, said Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), who cochairs the Select Committee on Investigation.
Drewniak testified under oath yesterday that David Wildstein, the Port Authority official who directed the lane closures, told him that he had cleared his GWB plan with Kelly and Stepien. When he passed along that information to McKenna, Drewniak added, the second-ranking official in the governor’s office told him he was already “looking into it.”
Yet it was not until four or five weeks later, when Drewniak told Christie and Chief of Staff Kevin O’Dowd on December 5 that Wildstein was adamant that he had told Stepien and Kelly in advance about the lane closures, that Christie and O’Dowd questioned the pair. Christie already had his suspicions, Drewniak said. He recalled the governor saying at the time, “I always wondered if Stepien knew more about this.”
Nevertheless, Christie and O’Dowd accepted their disavowals without bothering to interview Kelly’s subordinates, Christine Genovese Renna and Evan Ridley. This despite the fact that they already had a Renna-Ridley memo in their possession detailing Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s angry phone call charging that the lane closures were political retaliation.
Nor did Kelly come forward on December 13 when Christie called his senior staff together and angrily demanded that anyone with any knowledge of the GWB lane closures make a full disclosure within two hours -- even though Drewniak’s suspicions of Kelly were so deep by this time that he “was almost certain that Kelly would come forward” because “he suspected that she knew something about the lane realignment,” Drewniak told an internal inquiry commissioned by the governor.
Later that day, Christie told reporters that none of his senior staff knew anything about the lane closures -- an assertion that was proved false a month later when Kelly’s infamous email became public.
“We now know the issue of the closure of the lanes on the George Washington Bridge was in the front office’s ‘bloodstream’ (as Drewniak put it) as early as late October,” said Wisniewski.
“It calls into question what has been enunciated in the past about what the governor’s office knew and when it knew it. They knew our subpoena power would expire in a short period of time,” Wisniewski said, contending that the Christie administration’s failure to mount a full internal investigation represented “an effort to run out the clock.”
It was not until after the January 8 publication of Kelly’s “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” memo clearly linked the Bridgegate scandal to the governor’s office that incoming Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) announced that the Assembly would extend the subpoena powers of Wisniewski’s Assembly Transportation Committee, which were set to expire January 13, for two more years.
And it was only after Prieto made his announcement that Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) decided to push for the creation of the current Joint Select Committee on Investigation, co-chaired by Wisniewski and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).
Without Wildstein’s inclusion of the Kelly memo subpoenaed by Wisniewski’s Assembly Transportation Committee, the Legislature’s Bridgegate probe would have petered out; U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman would not have mounted a criminal investigation; there would have been no two-month national media feeding frenzy; and Christie today would most likely still be leading the polls as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Weinberg said Drewniak’s five-and-a-half-hours in the witness chair underscored the failure of the governor’s office to investigate the allegations in Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye’s September 13 memo that federal and state laws might have been broken by the four-day GWB lane closures. But Christie administration officials dismissed the memo as part of an ongoing feud between Foye, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Christie’s appointees -- Port Authority Chairman David Samson, Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, and Wildstein -- over management of the bistate agency.
“Nobody took the time to look into what was going on,” complained Weinberg, whose district includes Fort Lee and who was the first legislator to formally complain about the lane closures. “They just went into damage control.”
Yesterday’s testimony by Drewniak, who has already appeared before a federal grand jury convened by Fishman, puts McKenna, who resigned as chief counsel in December to become executive director of the Schools Development Authority, squarely in the cross-hairs of the Wisniewski-Weinberg committee.
McKenna, who reportedly met secretly with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in mid-January just a few days after the Kelly email became public, can provide inside information on the Christie administration’s early response to Bridgegate because he is the staffer whom Christie sent to question Baroni, Wildstein’s boss, after the Wall Street Journal published Foye’s memo on October 1.
Regina Egea, the former director of the governor’s authorities unit whom Christie selected to replace O’Dowd as chief of staff, also can provide key testimony into the governor’s response to the Bridgegate controversy in September and October, when the governor was running for reelection.
Egea spoke with Baroni about Foye’s memo on September 13 -- the day Foye angrily ordered the lanes reopened -- and it was Egea who issued the October 16 email saying that Port Authority officials were “sticking to the script” that the Bridgegate issue was “under review” -- even though “the truth is that nobody launched a review,” Weinberg said.While Wisniewski would only say that the committee will be discussing where to go next, both McKenna and Egea are likely candidates to be subpoenaed before the committee this summer.
Matt Mowers, who worked for Stepien in both the governor’s office and on the campaign, is scheduled to testify next Tuesday. It was Mowers who had responsibility for reaching out to Democratic mayors in North Jersey to seek their endorsement of the governor’s reelection, and it was Sokolich’s refusal to endorse Christie that reportedly triggered Wildstein and Kelly to close off GWB access lanes in Fort Lee as punishment. Mower is currently serving as executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party, a post he took in November, evidently in part to lay the groundwork for Christie’s expected 2016 presidential bid.
Foye and William “Pat” Schuber, the Port Authority commissioner from Bergen County to whom Weinberg originally complained, are scheduled to testify before the committee June 3, then the panel will take a break from testimony until after the June 30 budget deadline, Wisniewski said.
Wildstein already took the Fifth Amendment when he testified before the Assembly Transportation Committee on January 8, and Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled in March that Kelly and Stepien could invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to refuse to comply with an “overly broad” subpoena of their emails, phone records, and other documents by the legislative panel.
Wisniewski said yesterday that the committee’s lawyers were working on a narrower, more focused subpoena designed to meet Jacobson’s objections.
Republicans yesterday renewed their argument that the panel should focus its investigation on malfeasance at the Port Authority -- and not the governor’s office.
“We have heard testimony today under oath that Gov. Christie had nothing to do with the George Washington Bridge lane closures,” Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) said after the hearing. “The testimony from Mike Drewniak was clear. Now is the time to focus on policy instead of politics. Spending more money to try and embarrass the governor is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Let the prosecutors handle the potential criminal matters and let's move forward with (Monmouth County Republican) Assemblywoman (Amy) Handlin’s reform package.”
Drewniak is known to be a particularly acerbic defender of Christie and his policies, but it was a “kinder, gentler” Drewniak who appeared before the committee yesterday.
“What needs to be said right up front is that I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this strange, unnecessary, and idiotic episode,” Drewniak said in his opening statement. “Nor did I play any knowing role in any actual or perceived ‘coverup.’”
Drewniak said the “conduct, callousness, and cavalier attitude expressed” in the Wildstein and Kelly emails about Bridgegate “was like nothing I’ve witnessed in my entire working lifetime, and certainly not in this administration,” and added that he was particularly hurt that “the personal betrayal by David Wildstein came from someone I trusted, someone I considered a friend.”
Drewniak related publicly for the first time Christie’s reaction when he told the governor that Wildstein not only was saying that Kelly and Stepien knew about the lane closures in advance, but also that he had told the governor about the GWB “traffic study” while they were together at the World Trade Center site on September 11.
Christie was “incredulous,” Drewniak said, adding that the governor dismissed Wildstein’s contention with the comment, “(He makes) some drive-by remark about traffic and I’m supposed to know what he’s talking about?”