A chastened Gov. Chris Christie did everything he could yesterday to quell the burgeoning Bridgegate scandal, but the investigations are likely to continue for months, with an Assembly committee preparing to subpoena a parade of current and former Christie officials and with probes by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a U.S. Senate committee just getting underway.
For Christie, the slew of investigations and accompanying media scrutiny threaten not only to undercut his appeal as a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, but also will distract attention from the public policy agenda he will set out for his second term in his State of the State speech Tuesday and his Inaugural Address the following week.
“We’re going to take as long as we need to get all of the questions answered,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) promised. “We’re all shocked by what has come out.”
Just two months after his ebullient, triumphant reelection speech in Asbury Park’s Convention Hall, it was a much different Christie who walked slowly out to the podium in the governor’s office yesterday to explain to three rows of reporters, two banks of news cameras, and a national TV audience why he didn’t know that one of his top aides had ordered the controversial George Washington Bridge lane closures.
Saying he was humbled, embarrassed and humiliated, Christie yesterday fired Bridget Anne Kelly, his deputy chief of staff, as well as Bill Stepien, the campaign strategist who managed his two winning gubernatorial campaigns, apologized over and over during an agonizing 108-minute Statehouse press conference, then traveled up the New Jersey Turnpike to personally apologize to the mayor and people of Fort Lee.
A “heartbroken” Gov. Chris Christie talks about firing top aides and apologizing to the people of Fort Lee in this excerpt from his marathon press conference.
But while Christie was apologizing in the governor’s office, David Wildstein, Christie’s political “eyes and ears” in the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was preparing to take the Fifth Amendment more than 30 times before the Assembly Transportation Committee in the Statehouse Annex next door.
Christie’s personal day of atonement will undoubtedly be followed by a few more mea culpas in TV interviews and in his State of the State speech Tuesday, but it was Wildstein’s dazed expression as he was unanimously found to be in contempt of the Legislature that is the new face of the Bridgegate scandal and the investigations that promise to crowd the political calendar for the next several months:
Veteran Statehouse observers yesterday could not recall a time when a witness before a New Jersey legislative committee took the Fifth Amendment, nor could they recall a series of public investigative hearings by a committee with subpoena powers that could potentially drag on for months in the public eye. Yesterday’s hearing was the third hearing since November in which the Wisniewski committee has questioned current or former Port Authority officials on the Bridgegate scandal.
Compounding the political peril for Christie, whose two-month lead in polls for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 will likely end when the post-Bridgegate polls come out, is the national media feeding frenzy that the scandal has unleashed. The demand of the 24-hour news cycle is not only making a media star out of Wisniewski, who will be on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday morning, but giving Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the Democrat Christie defeated in a landslide last November, more positive air time than she received during her entire campaign.
“These investigations could run for months, and do real damage,” said Monmouth University professor Patrick Murray. “The problem with the story that is emerging is that it looks like the Christie people aren’t able to accept a loss. They take it personally when someone doesn’t go along with them, and they retaliate. And the problem with that is that people start making comparisons to Watergate, which started out in a very similar way.”
Indeed, Democratic legislators, including Weinberg and Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), have compared the present scandal to Watergate, in that both cases involved “dirty tricks” employed by staffers for candidates trying to run up big majorities in elections they were already guaranteed to win handily. Ironically, yesterday was the birthday of Richard Nixon, the GOP president brought down by his part in the Watergate coverup 50 years ago this year.
Another similarity with the Watergate scandal was the sight of Wildstein invoking his Fifth Amendment rights before the Wisniewski committee yesterday.
A frustrated Assemblyman John Wisniewski holds a Q&A with reporters following the committee hearing in which Wildstein pleaded the fifth, refused to answer questions, and was held in contempt by the committee.
The emails obtained by New Jersey Spotlight and other news organizations Wednesday and flashed on screens during Wildstein’s appearance before the Assembly Transportation Committee yesterday implicated Kelly, Wildstein and Bill Baroni, the Port Authority deputy executive director appointed by Christie, in the controversial lane closures that were evidently intended to punish Fort Lee Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse Christie for reelection.
Alan Zegas, Wildstein’s lawyer, said his client was invoking his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent under the U.S. Constitution and the New Jersey Constitution for fear that his statements would be used against him in the investigation launched by the U.S. Attorney’s Office just hours before Wildstein’s hearing yesterday.
Wisniewski told Wildstein and Zegas that the statute granting subpoena power to the Assembly Transportation Committee specifically prohibited witnesses from relying upon the Fifth Amendment and barred use of any testimony before the committee in any criminal prosecution.
Assemblyman Tom Giblin (D-Essex), who said he has known Wildstein for 25 years, urged him to stop invoking the Fifth Amendment. “Silence is not golden today, it exacerbates the feeling among the public that something else was going on here, that political retribution was taking place. Don’t let David Wildstein be the fall guy.”
When Wildstein still demurred, the bipartisan committee of Democrats and Republicans voted unanimously to hold Wildstein in contempt, a fourth-degree misdemeanor charge that Wisniewski said the committee would refer to the county prosecutor.
If Zegas appeals the contempt citation, his argument that the Fifth Amendment trumps the committee’s statutory requirement to testify could set a precedent for future witnesses. Zegas offered Wisniewski another option, however.
“If the U.S. Attorney and the Attorneys General of New York and New Jersey agree to provide Mr. Wildstein with immunity, he would be able to provide the answers you seek,” Zegas said following the vote on the contempt motion.
Zegas agreed to meet with Wisniewski’s legal staff to review the reasons for the redactions in the more than 900 pages of emails, texts and documents that Wildstein supplied to the committee, which are expected to be made public today.
Wisniewski made it clear that yesterday’s hearing was just the beginning. “We intend to continue our investigation, but this would all be made a lot easier if Gov. Christie did the right thing and voluntarily released all communications so everyone could find out with certainty what happened,” he said.
Wisniewski and Assembly Transportation Committee Vice Chair Linda Stender (D-Union) said they did not believe Christie was being fully forthcoming in his mea culpa press conference yesterday.
“Based on what we’ve seen and heard so far, I don’t believe the governor is being truthful to the people of this state when he denies any knowledge of this incident prior to yesterday,” Stender said. “Weeks ago, he mockingly dismissed the notion that he would have anything to do with a traffic study, and yet we saw in the documents released yesterday that he did in fact approve a study for the town of Springfield.”
“The Governor was right on one thing, however, when he said this is about politics — it’s about the politics of fear. The fact is, a punitive and vindictive culture was apparently allowed to thrive in the governor’s office where staff thought abusing public resources and jeopardizing public safety in the name of retribution was acceptable behavior. In the end, there were grave public safety consequences as a result of this vendetta, consequences that cannot be undone by a mere apology,” she said.
Wisniewski said the committee still needed to determine what the governor and senior members of his staff knew about the lane closures and when they knew it.
“I find it hard to believe that Bridget Kelly on her own can come up with the idea to block traffic lanes in Fort Lee,” Wisniewski said.
Christie said he fired Kelly, his deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, because the Wildstein emails obtained by the media Wednesday showed she lied about her involvement in the Bridgegate scandal when he asked his senior staff a month ago if any of them were involved.
“I would never have come out here four or five weeks ago and made a joke about these lane closures if I had ever had an inkling that anyone on my staff would’ve been so stupid but to be involved and then so deceitful as to just not disclose the information of their involvement to me when directly asked by their superior,” Christie said.
Christie, however, did not meet with Kelly or ask her any questions about the Bridgegate scandal before having her fired yesterday morning, saying he did not want to interfere with the Wisniewski committee’s investigation.
“I don’t know whether this is a traffic study that morphed into a political vendetta, or a political vendetta that morphed into a traffic study,” Christie said, continuing to offer support to Baroni’s contention in his testimony before the Wisniewski committee that the lane closures were part of a legitimate traffic study.
Christie also did not ask Stepien any questions about his involvement. He said he fired Stepien because he lost confidence in his judgment after seeing “the tone and behavior and attitude and callous indifference” he showed about the Bridgegate scandal in his emails with Wildstein.
He told Stepien to withdraw his name from consideration as the next New Jersey Republican Party chairman — a post Christie had recommended him for heartily on Tuesday — and announced he was terminating his contract with the Republican Governors Association. Christie is the RGA chairman this year.
Christie did say that he met for two hours with Samson, the former state attorney general whom he appointed as Port Authority chairman, and that he was confident that Samson had no involvement in the Bridgegate scandal.
He dismissed a question about whether any of his senior staff had played a role in covering up the political mess that followed the September lane closures. “You’re calling it a cover-up,” he accused the reporter.