A former aide to Governor Chris Christie said her supervisor, Bridget Anne Kelly, was angry that staff had contact with the mayor of the New Jersey town targeted for traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge.
Christina Renna told a legislative panel in Trenton today that she informed staff members last August to “back off” from any contact with Mayor Mark Sokolich when the state Office of Intergovernmental Affairs was contacted by the Fort Lee Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Renna told the 12-member panel that she was “trying to placate” her boss and never learned why Kelly objected to any interaction with Sokolich.
“I personally knew she was angry,” Renna said of Kelly, who served as deputy chief of staff. Renna figured, she said, that “the mayor’s office had done some critical wrong.”
Kelly is the Christie aide who wrote, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” in an e-mail prior to lane closings that tied up roads at the foot of the bridge, where the mayor didn’t endorse the governor’s re-election.
In her testimony today, Renna said Kelly asked her to delete an e-mail from Sept. 12, when Sokolich called to say he was “extremely upset.” Kelly wrote: “Good.”
Renna told the panel that the request, on Dec. 12, was “strange” and “paranoid.” She “wanted to sleep on the request,” she said, and deleted the e-mail 15 hours later, after forwarding it to a personal account.
“I wanted to be able to tell her in good faith that I did what she asked me to do,” Renna said. “But I wanted to protect myself as well.”
Renna, paid $81,000 a year, described herself as an “implementer” of instructions from Kelly and her predecessor, Bill Stepien, though she said she knew nothing of the bridge plot. Stepien left the post to run Christie’s political campaign.
“I had no knowledge of or involvement in the bridge lane closures,” she said. “The bridge lane closures did not in any way, shape or form exemplify the IGA I know.”
Renna’s actions after Kelly’s “traffic problems” e-mail became public were described in a report commissioned by Christie, a Republican, that absolved him.
On Jan. 9, before Christie convened a two-hour press conference to address the published e-mails, Kelly phoned Renna at the office.
“She said she was fired,” Renna recalled. “She could barely get out the words.”
Both women cried during the conversation, Renna said. Kelly said she didn’t know what she was going to do.
“She apologized a lot,” Renna said. “Then she said, ’You can’t trust anyone, Christina.’” They haven’t spoken since, Renna said.
Kelly and David Wildstein, once a top official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge, were blamed in the report by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. The report also revealed that Kelly and Stepien had a romance that summer which cooled after Stepien ended the relationship.
Gibson Dunn didn’t interview Wildstein, Kelly or Stepien, who each asserted their constitutional right against self-incrimination before the legislature.
Sokolich also wasn’t interviewed by the firm.
Renna said she was appearing before lawmakers “to share the truth about the office of intergovernmental affairs.” It operated in a nonpartisan manner, she said, to assist county and municipal officials.
When Kelly’s August e-mail was released, she called Renna at work, according to Christie’s report. Renna spoke to the governor’s lawyers who compiled the document.
“Kelly was hysterically crying and said that she was sorry,” according to the summary of Renna’s interview. “Renna asked Kelly if she was going to come into the office, and Kelly said no.''
Kelly hung up and called Renna back at some point later in the day to ask Renna to log into Kelly’s Twitter and delete Kelly’s account, because people were tweeting ‘mean things’ about Kelly.”
Kelly’s office had dealt with Sokolich, a Democrat who said he believed the jams were intended to punish him for not backing Christie’s re-election. The governor’s report said that Kelly called Renna and asked her to delete an e-mail that Kelly sent Sept. 12, when Sokolich called to say he was “extremely upset.” Kelly wrote: “Good.”
Kelly made the request to Renna on Dec. 12 after Christie’s chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, grilled her about the lane closings, the report said.
Renna described the office as a contact point for local government officials. Kelly, the divorced mother of four children, was “difficult” as a boss and was “really overwhelmed between family and work.”
During non-office hours, she told the panel today, some staffers also worked voluntarily to get Christie re-elected.
The office didn’t target members of one party over the other to support Christie’s initiatives, she said.
“Democratic allies are just that -- Democratic allies,” Renna said. “The governor has a lot of them.”
Renna disputed parts of her Gibson Dunn interview summary, including that her office received “mandatory directives” such as “Do not rush to return this mayor’s phone call.”
“Mandatory directives,” she said, was Gibson Dunn’s choice of words. It was “aggressive language,” she said, that she wouldn’t use.
The office measured a local official’s enthusiasm for Christie when staffers would call, for example, to say the administration had approved local grants. She said she was kept abreast of officials’ endorsements of the governor as he was running for re-election.
Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat who is co-chairman of the panel, said she was puzzled by Renna’s description of how the office operated.
“I’m having trouble separating in my mind what you perceived was going on here in the solicitation of those endorsements,” Weinberg said.
Weinberg said in a telephone interview yesterday that “not much in the administration operates outside of the governor’s hands.”
Other witnesses scheduled to testify by June 3 are Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority; William Schuber, a commissioner at the agency; Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie; and Matthew Mowers, who also worked under Kelly in the IGA office.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at firstname.lastname@example.org Stacie Sherman, Alan Goldstein