Analysis: Renna Testifies On Fear and Politics in Governor’s Office

Mark J. Magyar | May 7, 2014 | Politics
Christie, Cuomo appoint their own panel to recommend Port Authority reforms in 60 days, undercutting legislative committee

Christina Renna testifying before the Legislature’s Select Committee on Investigation.
Christina Genovese Renna, the first witness to testify before the Legislature’s Select Committee on Investigation regarding Bridgegate, yesterday depicted a governor’s office where orders flowed top-down in a strict hierarchy; where the lines between governmental and political activity were blurred; and where she was afraid she would lose her job if she reported her boss, Bridget Kelly, had asked her to destroy an incriminating email.

It was a governor’s office where Christie’s 2009 campaign manager, Bill Stepien, used voter data to generate a top 100 list of municipalities to get special attention from the Office of Inter-Governmental Affairs he headed. The assumption was that Christie could then win more votes in those towns in his 2013 reelection campaign, Renna confirmed.

It was a governor’s office that entrusted leadership of that critical Office of Inter-Governmental in Christie’s reelection year to Kelly, an erratic, “enormously stressed” manager whom Renna and Democratic legislators described as incapable of making a decision without checking with higher-ups — much less conceiving the complex George Washington Bridge lane closures to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.

And it was a governor’s office where Christie and Chief of Staff Kevin O’Dowd did not bother to interview either Renna or her subordinate, Evan Ridley, about Ridley’s memo reporting Sokolich’s allegation that the Bridgegate lane closures were political retaliation — even though the governor and his top aide had already been told by two aides that Kelly and Stepien reportedly knew in advance about the lane closures.

Nearly three months after David Wildstein, Christie’s top lieutenant at the Port Authority who carried out the lane closures, took the Fifth Amendment in the same witness chair, Renna’s five hours of poised and precise testimony in front of banks of TV cameras highlighted a day in which Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also appointed a joint committee to recommend Port Authority reforms.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), cochair of the legislative committee, said Renna’s testimony “filled some gaps” on how Christie’s since-abolished Inter-Governmental Affairs office worked, and pronounced herself to be satisfied that “Ms. Renna was cooperative and told the facts as she believes them to be.”

But she and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), her fellow co-chair, expressed concern that Renna was afraid to report her concern about Kelly’s request to delete an incriminating email to the governor’s counsel for fear that she would be fired as soon as Kelly found out.

“We have a government that is run by intimidation of key people who are in charge of delivering government services,” Wisniewski said, recalling that Port Authority bridge executives Robert Durando and Cedrick Fulton both testified in December that they went along with the GWB lane closures, even though they knew it was wrong, because they feared that Wildstein would have them fired.

Wisniewski and Weinberg both cited “a curious lack of curiosity in the governor’s office” evidenced by the failure of Christie and O’Dowd to call Renna and Ridley in for questioning about the Sokolich memo, which they had in hand a full month before publication of Kelly’s infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email led to her firing, Stepien’s dismissal, and a slew of Bridgegate investigations.

“It was not a secret after October 1 that there was controversy over the lane closures, that (Port Authority Executive Director) Pat Foye was alleging that federal and state laws had been broken, and that (Deputy Executive Director) Bill Baroni had received Foye’s memo back in September. And by December 6, David Wildstein had already resigned,” Wisniewski noted, questioning why Christie and O’Dowd failed to ask Kelly’s subordinates what they knew.

While the Select Committee on Investigation has been focusing on what the governor’s office knew about Bridgegate with Christie press secretary Michael Drewniak to follow Renna in the witness chair next Tuesday, Christie and Republican legislators yesterday launched a broad counter-offensive in an apparent attempt to undercut the public investigation by the legislative committee:

  • Christie and Cuomo yesterday announced the appointment of a Special Panel on the Future of the Port Authority to be made up of four Port Authority commissioners appointed by the governors, plus their chief counsels, to make recommendations within 60 days on how to restructure the bistate agency.
  • Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex), Christie’s top ally on the Select Committee on Investigation, yesterday unsuccessfully urged the panel to ask Christie’s attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to look into alleged leaks of documents by the committee.
  • Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) yesterday urged the panel to subpoena a half-dozen Port Authority employees with knowledge of the Bridgegate closures — three of whom already testified under oath before the Assembly Transportation Committee in December — in a move aimed at shifting the committee’s focus from the governor’s office to the operations of the Port Authority.
  • And Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) yesterday renewed the call for the 12-member Select Committee on Investigation, which has an eight-to-four Democratic majority, to be reconstituted with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, noting that U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) urged the same for a panel being established to investigate the deaths of four Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya.
  • While the O’Toole, Schepisi and Bramnick maneuvers seemed designed primarily to score political points, the joint announcement by the Republican Christie and Democrat Cuomo was not only significant, but also another sign of a convergence of political interests by a pair of governors whose future presidential prospects are being damaged by a drumbeat of questions about their management of the Port Authority.


    Christie’s appointee as Port Authority Chairman, David Samson, has resigned, as have Baroni and Wildstein, Christie’s top two operational appointees at the Port Authority. Investigations into their activities and Port Authority mismanagement are being conducted not only by the Wisniewski-Weinberg committee, but also by the U.S. Attorney’s offices in New Jersey and in the Southern District of Manhattan, by the Port Authority Inspector-General’s Office, and by a U.S. Senate subcommittee.

    Christie has a clear interest in getting out in front with a major initiative to reform the Port Authority: The Wisniewski-Weinberg committee is not only digging deep into Bridgegate, but also into the reasons for Christie’s cancellation of the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) rail passenger tunnel and into Wildstein’s secretive campaign to mislead the public about the massive 2011 toll hike that will ultimately raise tolls on the six trans-Hudson bridges and tunnels from $8 to $15.

    But Cuomo is also taking questions about how he could let Christie’s New Jersey appointees at the Port Authority hide the GWB lane closures from his staff; about his complicity in misleading the public on the toll hikes; and about how he could allow Port Authority toll revenues to be diverted to rebuild the Pulaski Skyway — even though it is not part of the port region’s road network.

    Further, yesterday’s announcement follows just five weeks after Christie put out the word that he was intrigued by the idea of splitting the Port Authority and its revenues into two separate state agencies. That announcement was followed by Cuomo’s surprising declaration that he was willing to consider putting an end to the bistate agency too. The joint letter Christie and Cuomo sent to the commissioners of the Port Authority yesterday seemed at least in part to echo the same theme.

    “As you know, the State of New York has expressed concerns going back to last year with the Port Authority’s development operations at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports,” the governors wrote. “New York State took the unprecedented step of seeking responsibility for development at these airports. These operational concerns are not isolated and a broad review of the Port’s operations must be addressed.”

    “In addition, recent events related to the George Washington Bridge have raised questions regarding management and governance that must be analyzed and addressed. The accompanying legal issues must be analyzed concerning the laws of both States, as well as federal legislation and the laws governing the financial structure of the Port,” the letter said.

    The Christie-Cuomo joint announcement creates a new committee that will supersede the Port Authority committee co-chaired by Port Authority Commissioner Richard Bagger, who served as Christie’s chief of staff during his first two years in office, and Port Authority Vice Chair Scott Rechler, a New York appointee.

    The new panel will include both Bagger and Rechler, plus former New Jersey Attorney General John Degnan, whom Christie just nominated to replace Samson as chairman, and a second New York commissioner.

    Most significantly, the two remaining members are Christopher Porrino, Christie’s chief counsel, and Mylan Denerstein, Cuomo’s chief counsel, which gives the two governors even more input into plans to break up or overhaul a Port Authority that transportation experts say has been undermined by too little professional independence and too much interference by the states’ governors.

    While transportation policy experts recommended that a blue-ribbon panel made up primarily of transportation professionals and advocates be convened to spend as much time as is needed putting together a comprehensive plan for the future of the agency, the six-member panel named by Christie and Cuomo does not include a single transportation policy expert, and the committee has just two months to submit written recommendations for change.

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