Feb. 1 (Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie knew about lane closures at the George Washington Bridge as they occurred in September, according to a lawyer for David Wildstein, his former ally at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The assertion yesterday in a letter to the Port Authority from attorney Alan Zegas contradicts the 51-year-old Republican governor’s statement Jan. 9 that he knew nothing about the lane closings that paralyzed traffic onto the bridge in Fort Lee for four days. Also yesterday, a former Christie campaign aide said he would refuse to answer questions about the affair under the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination.
Zegas said “evidence exists” of Christie’s knowledge, without citing any in the letter, which asks the Port Authority to pay Wildstein’s legal fees and protect him from any damages arising from civil lawsuits. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, has suggested the traffic snarl was ordered to punish him for not supporting the governor’s re-election.
“A person within the Christie administration communicated the Christie administration’s order that certain lanes on the George Washington Bridge were to be closed,” Zegas wrote. “Evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the governor stated.”
A joint state legislative panel and federal prosecutors are investigating. The Christie administration, in an e-mail yesterday, repeated the governor’s assertion that he first learned of the closures when they were reported by the media.
“Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer confirms what the governor has said all along: He had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened, and whatever Mr. Wildstein’s motivations were for closing them to begin with,” the administration said. “The governor denies Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer’s other claims.”
The closings, from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12, stretched typical delays of 30 minutes to four hours or more and trapped emergency-response vehicles and school buses. On what was to be the fifth day of tie-ups, Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, who was appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, ordered all lanes reopened. Wildstein is the former director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority.
The Wildstein claim “establishes a reasonable suspicion that the governor may have committed an impeachable offense,” said Senator Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat from Elizabeth who sits on the Judiciary Committee.
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.
The bridge plot apparently began in August when Christie’s then-deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, e-mailed to Wildstein: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein, who ordered the lane closures, replied: “Got it.”
Mark Sheridan, an attorney representing Christie’s campaign and the New Jersey Republican State Committee, declined to comment when reached by phone. Both organizations were issued subpoenas Jan. 17 by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, seeking documents related to the bridge closures.
“This is not a smoking gun but it definitely has to be taken seriously,” said Patrick Murray, director of polling at Monmouth University in West Long Branch. “The governor has been able, over the past few weeks, to not have to respond to any of the information that has come out because it hasn’t contradicted what he said. This is the first thing that directly contradicts what he said.”
Feb. 3 is the due date for documents subpoenaed by New Jersey lawmakers who also are investigating the matter. Twenty people or organizations with links to Christie were ordered to turn over e-mails, mobile-phone text messages, letters and any other correspondence related to the bridge closures.
Kevin Marino, a lawyer for Christie’s former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, notified the legislative committee yesterday that his client won’t comply with the subpoena and will invoke his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
“His act of producing documents and things responsive to the subpoena might compel him to furnish a link in the chain of evidence that could be used to ensnare him in the ambiguous circumstances of a criminal prosecution -- and thus force him to become a witness against himself,” Marino said.
Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer also has accused Christie’s administration of threatening to withhold federal aid to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy unless she approved a development project he supported. Juan Melli, a spokesman for Zimmer, said in an e-mail yesterday the city has received federal subpoenas seeking documents and intends to comply.
Christie, a possible 2016 presidential contender, is chairman of the Republican Governors Association and is a major fundraiser for colleagues’ races in November.
His approval since the bridge allegations slid to its lowest since May 2011, according to a poll released Jan. 28 by Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey. Forty-eight percent of state voters said they approved of his job performance, wiping out the bounce he received in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The rating stood at 62 percent in October poll by the institute.
Christie hasn’t faced reporters since the Jan. 9 news conference. He made two appearances this week on sports radio programs to discuss the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford.
“Chris Christie doesn’t want to talk about anything but the game, but it looks like he’s going to need to change his plans,” Mo Elleithee, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement.
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