The New Jersey lawmaker heading the investigation into a political scandal over a traffic jam said it’s unlikely Governor Chris Christie was kept in the dark given the number of people involved in carrying it out.
“Any governor running for re-election is going to want to know about problems that come up, if for no other reason to know how to respond when asked a question,” state Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat, said yesterday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Wisniewski said that, while the Assembly has impeachment power, “we’re a little early on that” because the inquiry is still being conducted.
Internal e-mails released last week showed Christie’s allies orchestrated the September closures of lanes merging onto the George Washington Bridge that lead into Manhattan from Fort Lee, New Jersey, in an act of political revenge. The days-long traffic jam occurred during the beginning of the school year on the world’s busiest motor-vehicle bridge for what Christie aides tried to pass off as the result of a traffic study.
Legislators and federal prosecutors in the state are investigating who was involved in the decision to close the lanes. Christie fired on Jan. 9 his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, who he said had lied to him about whether anyone on his team was involved in the closings. Two other people have resigned.
Wisniewski, who heads the Assembly Transportation Committee, plans to issue another round of subpoenas today to Christie aides whose names appeared in the documents released last week, the Bergen Record reported. Some of the e-mails are from people trying to figure out how to respond to criticisms, including that from New York officials who said the closures were illegal.
“His deputy chief of staff knew, his incoming chief of staff knew,” Wisniewski said. “It just strains credibility that they didn’t look at those documents and say, ‘we ought to let him know about it.’”
Only one lane was available to New Jersey commuters, turning the typical 30-minute drive across the bridge into a trip of four hours or more over several days, stranding commuters and emergency medical crews.
“If it becomes known that the governor was involved and he knew about it and he knew about the cover-up and he was approving the actions taken by his senior staff, that raises serious questions that the assembly ought to look at,” Wisniewski said.
Christie’s statement that he didn’t know about the plan rings true, considering the stakes to his political future, said former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
“If it’s not true, the man has put his political career at risk,” Giuliani said of his fellow Republican. Giuliani spoke yesterday on ABC’s “This Week.” “He says he didn’t realize, he says he didn’t know. I think it’s pretty darn credible -- he wouldn’t make this blanket denial.”
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, rejected arguments that Christie set the tone that allowed the lane closure to occur.
“He trusted people that lied to him and he fired those people,” Priebus said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
At a Jan. 9 press conference, Christie said the situation didn’t reflect his management style and pronounced he wasn’t “a bully.” He later met with Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich to apologize for the closings. Sokolich is a Democrat who -- unlike some leading party members in his state -- didn’t break ranks to endorse the governor’s November re-election bid.
“He came, he was candid,” Sokolich said in an interview on NBC yesterday. “I thought it was a productive conversation.”
“He’s certainly tough,” the mayor said of the governor. “He’s certainly hard. He’s certainly strict. Whether it rises to bully, I leave that to your judgment.”
The disclosure of the messages led Christie -- who also said during the press conference that he was “stunned” and “blindsided” when he learned aides had done something he described as inexcusable -- to fire Kelly and cut ties with one of his top advisers.
“You miss a lot of things when you’re running a government as complicated as New Jersey, New York or the United States,” Giuliani said.
Rick Santorum, a possible candidate in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, praised the governor for facing the situation head on in last week’s press conference. Still, Santorum said the matter raised questions about Christie’s ability to choose staff wisely.
“I have several concerns about it,” Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania who also sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, said in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program yesterday. “Personnel is policy, and the people that you hire are the policies that are implemented.”
State lawmakers and federal prosecutors are investigating the lane closings, which immobilized Fort Lee.
New Jersey Assembly Speaker-elect Vincent Prieto, a Democrat, said Jan. 11 that he will call his chamber into special session Jan. 16 to consider reauthorizing the committee’s subpoena power, which expires tomorrow, to enable the probe to continue.
On Jan. 9, an Assembly panel looking into whether the closures were retribution against Sokolich was stymied by David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Appearing under subpoena, he invoked his right to remain silent. The panel ruled him in contempt. Wildstein resigned his post last month, as did Bill Baroni, Christie’s top executive appointee at the authority.
Christie, who easily won re-election last year, has said his focus is on New Jersey rather than a possible 2016 presidential run. Still, he hasn’t ruled out seeking the Republican nomination.
A CNN/ORC International poll last month showed him ahead of Democrat and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 48 percent to 46 percent, in a hypothetical 2016 race.