Michael Drewniak, Governor Chris Christie’s press secretary, told New Jersey lawmakers he didn’t know of planned traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge and called them “idiotic” and “abusive” to the public trust.
Drewniak, 53, said he felt “betrayed” in the incident by his then-friend David Wildstein, a former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive at the center of the scandal. During a steak dinner on Dec. 4, Wildstein said the traffic study used as justification for the September lane closings was his idea, Drewniak told lawmakers investigating the issue.
Questions of who ordered the tie-ups and why have tarnished Christie’s prospects for a White House run in 2016. Drewniak, who has served the Republican as a spokesman for more than a decade, said the governor wasn’t involved. The spokesman said “there was no value to doing something this asinine,’” and that it remains a mystery to him why Wildstein and another Christie ally ordered the closings.
“I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this strange, unnecessary and idiotic episode,” Drewniak said today in Trenton. “Nor did I play any role in any actual or perceived cover-up.”
A cache of subpoenaed e-mails made public in January included the “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” missive penned by former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly. Wildstein, a onetime Christie ally at the transportation agency, replied “Got it.” The lane closings paralyzed traffic for four days in Fort Lee, whose Democratic mayor didn’t endorse Christie’s re-election bid.
“It’s like remembering where you were when the space shuttle blew up -- it’s that shocking,” Drewniak said of learning about the e-mails.
Drewniak was quoted in those e-mails being dismissive of press reports of the lane closings. During his testimony today, he said the blockages initially struck him as a “bottom of the barrel” issue that should have been handled by the Port Authority.
During the testimony, the exchanges grew heated as Drewniak’s attorney Anthony Iacullo repeatedly broke in to address the committee or confer with his client.
At another point, Drewniak told co-chair Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Teaneck, that many people in the administration viewed the first allegations as “ginned up” by partisans. Democrats control both houses of the legislature.
Assembly John Wisniewski, a Democrat from Sayreville who co-chairs the panel, seized on testimony by Drewniak that he’d notified Christie’s chief counsel of the lane closings in November, and that administration officials might be involved. Drewniak said he “fulfilled my role” by doing so.
“What this testimony says to me is it calls into question the timeline that’s been enunciated in the past about who knew what and when,” Wisniewski told reporters in Trenton.
A former reporter for the Star-Ledger newspaper of Newark, Drewniak worked for about a decade at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark and was a spokesman for Christie when the Republican served as U.S. attorney from 2002 to 2008. After Christie was elected governor, Drewniak joined him in the state capital.
Christie fired Kelly in January after the scandal broke, saying she had lied to him.
Drewniak has since limited public appearances and refused to answer reporters’ questions related to the traffic jams. In February, investigators from U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman’s office interviewed Drewniak as part of a federal probe into the bridge matter.
An investigation by lawyers commissioned by Christie concluded that the governor had no advance knowledge of a plot to close the lanes. Kelly and Wildstein engineered the traffic jams to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for unknown political reasons, according to a report from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP.
In testimony in November before the New Jersey Assembly Transportation Committee, Bill Baroni, Christie’s appointee as the authority’s deputy executive director, said the closures were for a traffic study. Baroni and Wildstein resigned in December. A comprehensive traffic study has yet to be produced.
“He took full responsibility -- ‘this was my idea’ -- and he stuck to it as valid,” Drewniak said of Wildstein, referring to the traffic study.
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