Subpoenaed documents due today from 20 people and groups with ties to Governor Chris Christie may determine whether he’s called to testify before New Jersey lawmakers about intentional traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge.
John Wisniewski, a Democratic assemblyman who is co-chairman of a panel investigating the tie-ups, said that he’d like to see any evidence that Christie knew of them as they occurred. That was the claim in a Jan. 31 letter by an attorney for David Wildstein, a former Christie ally at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who has since resigned. When a Christie aide in August suggested to Wildstein that he create traffic hassles in the town of a mayor who didn’t endorse the governor, Wildstein made them happen.
“We need to make decisions about who knew what when,” Wisniewski, 51, from Sayreville, said yesterday on CBS-TV’s “Face The Nation.” On calls for Christie to resign or face impeachment, Wisniewski responded: “One word: premature.”
Christie, a 51-year-old Republican, has denied any role, and, in a Feb. 1 e-mail to supporters, questioned Wildstein’s credibility. The scandal has thrown into doubt the possibility of Christie running for president, turning a local act of political retribution into a national issue. But it also has unique repercussions throughout New Jersey and its statehouse in Trenton.
This is the time of year when the governor’s staff members typically prepare for the annual February budget address. It will be a consequential one: The state may not be able to afford a $2.4 billion fiscal 2015 pension payment alongside the need for police and school improvements, Christie warned in a January speech. The payment was mandated in bipartisan legislation Christie signed in 2011, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat from West Deptford, said he would shut down government rather than ask state workers to pay more toward health care and retirement.
Christie previously has managed to cobble together support from the dominant Democrats for his ideas. Now, the bridge scandal has led them to subpoena 18 individuals and two organizations, including the governor’s office, his chief of staff and chief counsel, his former deputy chief of staff and longtime campaign manager and members of his press office.
The documents seek to unravel the mystery of what prompted Bridget Anne Kelly, a Christie deputy chief of staff, to order bridge-access lanes closed in Fort Lee, whose Democratic mayor didn’t endorse Christie. The link between that act of retribution, which caused traffic jams of four hours or more on four mornings in September, and the governor’s office came to light in a cache of subpoenaed e-mails and text messages released last month.
Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that a subpoenaed Christie staff member quit on the same day Wildstein made his accusation. Christina Genovese Renna had reported to Kelly, according to the news service.
For Christie, re-elected in a 22 percentage point landslide in November, the issue metastasized into his largest political challenge. Since the revelation, he also has faced and denied an accusation by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, a Democrat, that his administration linked Hurricane Sandy aid to approval of a development project. And the U.S. government has begun an audit of federally funded television tourism commercials he appeared in during the campaign.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, in a separate probe, has ordered the governor’s re-election campaign and the Republican State Committee to turn over documents.
“We’ve obviously seen large investigative committees seeking information about what happened and why over the years in Washington D.C., from Watergate to Iran-Contra,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville. “Whether they are effective or not depends really on two things: One is what they find; two is the leadership qualities of those who head the committees.”
Wisniewski said committee meetings haven’t been scheduled and the documents collected today won’t be made public immediately.
“The committee needs to see it, evaluate it, decide what next steps have to be taken,” he said on “Face The Nation.” Without all the documents in hand, though, panel members “don’t have any reason” to call the governor to testify, he said.
The subpoenas required all communications, including text messages, notes and documents between Sept. 1 and the present regarding the lane closings, along with all video and audio recordings and voice mails. They also demand all calendars and day planners, as well as all smartphones, mobile phones, tablets and other similar devices used during that period, whether business or personal.
The state and federal investigations won’t affect each other, Wisniewski said. He said the committee is finding out exactly what happened and why, then crafting laws to prevent it from taking place again. Fishman is conducting a criminal probe, he said.
Wisniewski said the investigation will go “wherever the documents take us.”