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Bridgegate’s 30 Pivotal Hours: How Kevin O’Dowd Missed The Signs

kevin o'dowd
Credit: Philly.com
Kevin O'Dowd

Kevin O’Dowd, Christie’s chief of staff, entered Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Princeton, as usual by the side entrance, filing through the kitchen and the dining room, where he was surprised to see Gov. Chris Christie sitting huddled in conversation with Bill Stepien, Christie’s campaign manager who had helped the governor pile up a landslide reelection victory the month before.

Christie motioned him over. “Kevin, this bridge issue is still out there,” Christie said. “All the noise on political retribution is still out there. This is a major distraction. I need you to talk to Bridget Kelly and ask her whether or not she had anything to do with closing the lanes."

It was just before 11 a.m. on December 12th, the day before the pivotal press conference at which Christie would proclaim that no one on his staff had any knowledge of the George Washington Bridge lane closures -- a claim Christie would be forced to recant less than a month later in a two-hour confessional broadcast nationwide.

It marked the beginning of a critical 30-hour period during which Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni would be fired, Kelly would be questioned, and Christie and O’Dowd would have one last opportunity to learn the truth about Bridgegate before Kelly’s explosive “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email would take the initiative out of their hands and unleash a media feeding frenzy that would threaten Christie’s national ambitions and sidetrack O’Dowd’s nomination as attorney general.

It was O’Dowd, under whom Kelly served as deputy chief of staff, that Christie entrusted to get to the bottom of rumors swirling around the governor’s office about Kelly’s involvement in the controversial lane closures, and O’Dowd’s inexplicable failure to follow the clues could ultimately torpedo his hopes to serve as the state’s chief law enforcement officer.

“That December 12th-13th period is going to be a real shaky point for him when he goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Monmouth University political scientist Patrick Murray said after O’Dowd testified before the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Investigation yesterday. “There were enough indications of red flags out there before the governor gave his press conference, but he missed them. It just boggles the mind."

“When you’re serving as chief of staff, it is your responsibility to protect the governor, yet there was no followup. Here we have a former assistant U.S. attorney whose Spidey senses should be tingling, but he simply takes Bridget Kelly at her word. And his lack of curiosity about Bridget Kelly violating document retention policy by destroying emails definitely should be concerning to the Judiciary Committee,” Murray said.

The committee’s cochairs, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), said it would be premature to comment on O’Dowd’s fitness to serve as attorney general until he is formally nominated by Christie.

But Wisniewski said O’Dowd did not serve Christie well as chief of staff by failing to make further inquiries when Kelly showed him a three-month-old email from her aide Christina Genovese Renna detailing a call from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich complaining that he was being targeted for political retaliation -- a memo O’Dowd shared with Christie just moments before the press conference.

O’Dowd’s recollections of the tumultuous events of December 12th and 13th highlighted more than seven hours of testimony under oath before the Wisniewski-Weinberg committee. Not only was O’Dowd the highest-ranking Christie administration official of the five witnesses who have now testified, but his expected nomination as the state’s next attorney general raised the stakes in yesterday’s hearing.

O’Dowd’s recollections differed in important details from those of former Chief Counsel Charles McKenna and other officials, as reported in the $3 million internal inquiry conducted for the governor’s office by Randy Mastro and his team of Gibson Dunn Crutcher lawyers, and from Christie press secretary Michael Drewniak’s testimony.

But it was O’Dowd’s detailed account of his 30-hour immersion into Bridgegate that drew the most questions from legislators on the investigative committee, both during and after the hearing.

O’Dowd, who had just returned from a short vacation in Florida, said he had been aware of the Bridgegate controversy since late September. The week before -- either on December 5, according to Drewniak, or on December 2, according to O’Dowd -- Drewniak had been sitting in O’Dowd’s office when Christie walked in.

Drewniak told the governor that David Wildstein, Baroni’s deputy at the Port Authority, was saying that he had told Christie about the controversial lane closures during the 9/11 ceremony at the World Trade Center site while the lanes were still closed.

Christie shrugged off the story, but Drewniak recalled that Wildstein said he had told Kelly and Stepien too. Now, O’Dowd had walked into Drumthwacket to see Christie sitting with Stepien, and Christie was asking O’Dowd to ask Kelly whether she was involved in the lane closures. Stepien and Kelly had briefly dated the previous summer, and Christie had his own suspicions about Stepien’s involvement. “I always thought Stepien knew more about this,” Drewniak had recalled Christie saying.

Upstairs, while waiting for an unrelated meeting to start, Christie took O’Dowd aside and told him he had questioned Stepien, and that he was satisfied that Stepien had nothing to do with the lane closures, but that Stepien’s nomination as chairman of the state Republican Party was going to be delayed. (Stepien, who has maintained his innocence, attended yesterday’s hearing with his lawyer, but declined comment).

While the Christie administration outwardly was continuing to maintain its position that the George Washington Bridge lane closures had been part of a legitimate traffic study, the governor was moving rapidly to cut ties with those responsible.

The night before, McKenna had told Wildstein, whose resignation had already been announced, that December 13th would be his last day at the Port Authority, and O’Dowd and McKenna were scheduled to deliver the same message to Baroni that afternoon at 4:30 in the governor’s Newark office. Baroni’s resignation and replacement with Deborah Gramiccioni would be announced by Christie at a Statehouse press conference the following day in an effort to put the Bridgegate story behind them. But first, Christie wanted O’Dowd to confront Kelly, who was the latest target of suspicion.

Bridgegate was a continuing public relations nightmare -- during his 11 a.m. Drumthwacket meeting that day, O’Dowd would receive a text from a top adviser to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo warning him that the Wall Street Journal was carrying a story saying that Christie had called Cuomo to ask him to tell Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, a Cuomo appointee, to stop complaining publicly about the lane closures.

O’Dowd stopped by the Statehouse to see if Kelly was in on his way to Newark. She wasn’t, but she texted him on his cell phone while he was in the car, and he called her. After chatting about Kelly’s daughter’s surgery that day, O’Dowd’s recent trip to Florida and the complications of setting up a meeting requested by an assemblyman, O’Dowd pivoted to the reason for his call.

“I asked, ‘Did you have anything to do with the lane closings?” O’Dowd recalled. “She responded, ‘Absolutely not, why are you asking?’ I said I was at Drumthwacket that day, and the governor asked me to ask. ‘Does he think he did?’ she asked.”

O’Dowd said he asked Kelly to check her emails and texts to see if anyone had sent her anything on the lane closures, but he believed her. “Bridget Kelly is someone that I had worked with and known for four years and someone who I thought very highly of: hardworking, energetic, loyal -- someone I believed and trusted.”

The next stop was the meeting with McKenna and Baroni. “Bill Baroni knew he was not going to stay on as deputy executive director,” O’Dowd said. “He may not have known who his replacement would be, we let him know that as well.” It was O’Dowd who had personally reached out to see if Gramiccioni was interested the month before. “But he did not know his last day was to be the next day,” O’Dowd recalled.

O’Dowd said Christie and Port Authority Chairman David Samson had decided months earlier that Baroni, who had served for four years, would not be retained. He was “burned out” in a job that people usually held for two years, and relations between the New York and New Jersey factions at the bistate agency were exceptionally rocky. But there was no question, O’Dowd said, that his departure – like Wildstein’s -- was being “accelerated” because of the mishandling of the Bridgegate lane closures.

Baroni’s main concern was how he could arrange his severance and benefits in just one day, and whether he would get indemnification against any lawsuits or investigations arising out of Bridgegate. O’Dowd expressed sympathy and told him to call Michael DuHaime, Christie’s campaign strategist, who had a job for him. There was no “animus” toward Baroni, O’Dowd assured him; to this day, Christie -- who speaks scathingly of Wildstein and Kelly -- speaks respectfully of Baroni.

Baroni became emotional. “Bill Baroni looked at Charlie McKenna and me and said, ‘I am a constitutional law professor, I am a former state senator, and everything I said before the (Assembly Transportation) committee was true: There was a traffic study.”

Under questioning from Wisniewski, O’Dowd acknowledged he did not ask Baroni for a copy of the study, nor did he ask any questions about who authorized the traffic study or the lane closures, or whether anyone in the governor’s office knew anything about it.

The following morning, when O’Dowd went into the Statehouse, Gramiccioni waved him into her office. “She Indicated to me she had communicated with Baroni , and Baroni had indicated to her there was some document showing that Bridget Kelly knew about lane closures,” O’Dowd said. “It did surprise me because I had just met with Bill Baroni the day before and he had not said anything.” Once again, under questioning from Wisniewski, O’Dowd acknowledged that he never called Baroni to find out what he knew. “If I understood Gramiccioni correctly, Bill Baroni had not seen the document,” he said. “I assume Deb passed along to me what she knew and I was going to approach Bridget Kelly.”

That morning, Christie held an emotional meeting with his senior staff, warned that as a potential presidential candidate he was going to be under intense scrutiny from the press, and said the Bridgegate scandal or any other misstep would be magnified.

Looking them in the eye one after another, he said he wanted anyone with any knowledge of Bridgegate to tell O’Dowd, McKenna and him within the next two hours before he went out and announced to the Statehouse press corps that no one on his staff had any knowledge of the lane closures.

O’Dowd said he met with Kelly three times in the next hour, once in his office and twice in hers. Kelly produced a printout of a memo written by Renna, who served under her as director of intergovernmental affairs, detailing a 20-minute phone call that staffer Evan Ridley had had with Sokolich on September 12, the fourth day of the lane closures, in which the mayor alleged that the lanes had been closed as political retaliation against him.

O’Dowd said he asked Kelly why she didn’t send him a copy of the memo when she received it, then asked Kelly again if she had knowledge of the lane closures, and she said no. He concluded, however, that contemporaneous knowledge of complaints about the lane closures was not the same as advance knowledge.

He also did not seem to pick up on the implication in the email that Renna was apologizing to Kelly for Ridley taking the call from Sokolich -- who was evidently persona non grata -- which should have been another indication of Kelly’s deeper involvement in the lane closures. Wisniewski asked O’Dowd if he ever sought to interview Renna or Ridley either that morning or later, and he said he never did.

O’Dowd recalled that Stepien was hanging around in the doorway to Kelly’s office during at least some of his questioning of Kelly, and furthermore, that Kelly acknowledged deleting some of her emails in violation of standard government retention policy. O’Dowd simply told Kelly to check her deleted email files because she could probably get the deleted emails back.

In fact, the night before, a panicked Kelly had deleted the one-word response she had sent to Renna on the Sokolich email – “Good” – and had called Renna to ask her to delete it from her files because it indicated her state of mind toward Sokolich. Renna deleted it from her government email, as requested by Kelly, but she kept a copy in her personal email, which she later shared with investigators.

O’Dowd took the memo on the Sokolich call in to Christie, who was just minutes away from the start of the press conference where he planned to announce Baroni’s resignation. Christie read the memo, evidently was satisfied by O’Dowd’s report on his interview with Kelly, and went out and announced to the media that none of his senior staff had any knowledge of the lane closures.

During the press conference, Kelly texted O’Dowd, who was standing 15 feet away, to ask if she should ask to meet with the governor. He said he didn’t reply to the text.

To Weinberg, O’Dowd’s failure to follow up on all of the clues indicating Kelly might have been involved in Bridgegate was just the latest example of “the curious lack of curiosity in this administration” and its disinterest in getting to the root causes of the Bridgegate lane closures.

She pointed out to O'Dowd that by the time of the December 12 press conference, Foye had written a memo charging that federal and state laws had been broken, Christie had been questioned about the issue at a gubernatorial debate, Weinberg had shown up at three Port Authority meetings demanding answers, Baroni and other Port Authority officials had been subpoenaed to testify before Wisniewski’s Assembly Transportation Committee, and Wildstein and Baroni had been forced to resign.

Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) said the failure of the Christie administration to get to the bottom of the scandal was particularly inexplicable, given that Christie, McKenna, and O’Dowd had a total of 31 years of experience in the U.S. Attorney’s Office between them.

“You would agree with me that you are a skilled prosecutor,” Gill demanded of Christie’s choice to serve as the next attorney general.

“I will agree with that,” O’Dowd replied.

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