A New Jersey legislative committee plans to issue new subpoenas for documents or testimony over a multi-day traffic jam that paralyzed Fort Lee as an act of political revenge, a lawmaker said today.
Possible recipients of the subpoenas include Bridget Anne Kelly, Governor Chris Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Stepien, the governor’s former campaign manager, said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who is leading an investigation into the September closures at the George Washington Bridge, which is run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Christie aides ordered the shutdown of the bridge’s Fort Lee approach lanes during four days in September to punish the town’s Democratic mayor, who didn’t endorse the Republican governor for re-election, according to e-mails and texts obtained last week. The furor endangers Christie’s claim to bipartisan leadership and distracts from his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us and a lot of questions unresolved,” Wisniewski said in an interview in Trenton. “We know that Bridget Kelly sent an e-mail that authorized it and we want to know more about her e-mails and other communications.”
It’s too early to say whether a subpoena may be issued for Christie, Wisniewski said. The Democrat-dominated Assembly’s subpoena power expires tomorrow at the end of the current legislative session. The next session begins Jan. 16, when the second round of subpoenas may be issued, he said.
The new threat of subpoenas comes amid two federal investigations into Christie. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is auditing Christie’s trademark “Stronger Than the Storm” television advertising campaign to promote the Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy.
“At issue is the bidding process for the campaign and released documents which raise questions as to why the state chose to award the contract to a firm that charged the state over $2 million more than a comparable bid for similar work,” said Congressman Frank Pallone, a Long Branch Democrat who requested the probe in August. In a statement, a Christie spokesman, Colin Reed, pointed to a commentary in the National Review Online that said the disclosure was timed to damage the governor.
“Amazing that the inspector general’s investigation leaks now generating the headline ‘Feds investigating Christie’s use of Sandy relief funds’ when the governor is at his lowest point, no?” Jim Geraghty wrote in a National Review blog today.
A U.S. attorney is separately examining the Christie administration’s involvement in the creation of the four-day traffic quagmire in Fort Lee.
The governor soon faces several crucial appearances. His annual agenda-setting State of the State address tomorrow will be followed Jan. 18 when, as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie is to appear at Florida fundraisers for several candidates, Susan Hepworth, a spokeswoman for the organization, confirmed by e-mail yesterday.
Three days later, Christie will be sworn in to his second term followed by a party on Liberty Island, probably absent four casualties: Kelly, a deputy chief of staff he fired after e-mails disclosed Jan. 8 showed she said it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” before officials shut lanes; Stepien, the campaign manager with whom Christie cut ties last week; and Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, appointees who resigned last month from the Port Authority.
In an almost two-hour news briefing in his Trenton office Jan. 9, Christie apologized for his allies’ involvement and said he had been betrayed. His eyes bloodshot and teary, he said he was sleepless, “embarrassed and humiliated.”
In the e-mails and text messages obtained by media including Bloomberg, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich asked Port Authority officials whether the traffic tie-ups were a punishment. Christie has said his ability to attract Democratic support is a lesson for federal politicians. Sokolich hadn’t followed dozens of others in his party in backing Christie for governor.
Lanes were closed for four days, turning the typical 30-minute drive across the bridge into a trip of four hours or more, stranding commuters and emergency medical crews. A 91-year-old woman who suffered cardiac arrest died later, according to a letter among Fort Lee officials.
Sokolich didn’t return a message left at his law office. His mobile phone voicemail was at capacity, and he didn’t respond to a text message.
Fort Lee Councilman Joseph L. Cervieri Jr. said Sokolich was contacted by a “low-level” Christie campaign staff member in the summer. The mayor spoke to members of the governing body and concluded that an endorsement would be an insult to Buono, Cervieri said. Sokolich didn’t get back in touch with the staff member, whose name Cervieri couldn’t recall, he said.
On Sept. 10, the jam’s second day, Cervieri was delayed on the way to a doctor’s appointment in Manhattan. Later, back home, he stopped at Sokolich’s Fort Lee law office.
“He was trying to make calls to Baroni and everyone else he could think of,” Cervieri, a real-estate agent, said by telephone. “He had a letter personally delivered to Baroni’s office. We were getting stonewalled.”
The Port Authority routinely sends e-mails alerting local officials to even the most mundane maintenance schedules, Cervieri said. This time, the town received nothing, he said.
“It was definitely something that was done spitefully,” Cervieri said.
Christie last week repeated what he told reporters in December: that he had no personal knowledge of the scheme. The governor could be impeached if lawmakers discover that he knew about the jam or the effort to cover it up, Wisniewski told NBC News.
Assembly Speaker-elect Vincent Prieto, a Democrat from Secaucus, said he will call his chamber into special session Jan. 16. The Assembly said today it will form a committee focused solely on investigating the lane closings. The panel will have subpoena power and special counsel, lawmakers said in a statement.
The Sandy investigation had its genesis last year. Pallone said in his August letter to David Montoya, HUD’s inspector general, that the winning ad firm was being paid $4.7 million for its work, while another firm proposed billing $2.5 million. The winning bid included Christie in the ads. The cheaper proposal didn’t.
“It is inappropriate for taxpayer-funded dollars that are critical to our state’s recovery from this natural disaster to fund commercials that could potentially benefit a political campaign,” Pallone wrote.
In response, a basic review was conducted, according to Pallone’s statement. Last week, Montoya’s office notified him that they had enough evidence to justify a full audit, he said.
The winning bidder, MWW Group, issued a statement defending its proposal. The public-relations firm said it offered the lowest hourly rates of all bidders, and the final cost of the marketing campaign came in lower than the next bidder’s, at $22.3 million. The decision to include the governor was made after the contract was awarded, the company said.
The ad “was one of the most successful campaigns in the history of New Jersey and had a material impact on the economic recovery of the Jersey Shore,” according to the statement.
The Christie administration said the advertisements had been properly vetted.
“The Stronger Than The Storm campaign was just one part of the first action plan approved by the Obama administration and developed with the goal of effectively communicating that the Jersey Shore was open for business during the first summer after Sandy,” Christie spokesman Reed said in a statement. “Federal agency reviews are routine and standard operating procedure.”
HUD spokeswoman Melanie Roussell said the agency had no comment on the matter.
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