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 abroadcast 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 explosivewould 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-olddetailing 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 millionconducted 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.
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, 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.