Michael Drewniak, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s press secretary, was interviewed by U.S. prosecutors probing deliberate traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge, according to his lawyer.
Drewniak, one of Christie’s closest advisers, met prosecutors working for U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman in Newark, New Jersey. Fishman’s office and state lawmakers are examining lane closures at the bridge from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12, which paralyzed traffic in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, has said he believes the tie-ups were meant to punish him for not backing the re-election last fall of Christie, a Republican. The scandal has hurt Christie’s reputation as he eyes a White House run in 2016.
“During our meeting today with the United States Attorney’s Office, we were assured that Mike is not a target of any investigation but a fact witness,” Drewniak’s attorney, Anthony Iacullo, said yesterday in a statement. “He will continue to cooperate fully with federal authorities as needed.”
Drewniak is “at best a witness and a tangential figure in these events and proceedings,” Iacullo said. “I am certain all fair, objective and nonpartisan parties will recognize that as we move forward.”
The meeting may help Fishman move closer to learning which Christie allies ordered the closings of local-access lanes to the bridge. Rebekah Carmichael, a spokeswoman for Fishman, said she couldn’t discuss the investigation.
Fort Lee officials today released more than 26 hours of audiotapes of emergency dispatch calls to Fort Lee during the four days of traffic jams. The tapes were immediately posted on a website created by American Bridge 21st Century, a research group that targets Republican candidates.
“The audio from these tapes may provide a window into the burden local law enforcement and emergency response workers shouldered while Christie’s administration sought to penalize a political foe of the governor,” according to the group’s website.
“You are aware the town is in total gridlock, correct?,” said one voice on the tape on Sept. 9 at 9:45 a.m.
Another voice referred to a local street, Martha Washington Way, two hours earlier: “They’re testing a new pattern, traffic, from Martha Washington. It’s down to one lane now, and sun glare, also.”
Drewniak, a former newspaper reporter, worked for about a decade at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark and was a spokesman for Christie while he was U.S. attorney there from 2002 to 2008. After Christie was elected governor in November 2009, Drewniak joined him in Trenton, the state capital, setting a combative tone with reporters that reflected his boss’s style.
Since the scandal became public, Drewniak has made only limited public appearances and has declined to answer questions about the traffic jams.
Drewniak was mentioned in several e-mails released last month by the legislative committee examining the bridge shutdown. The committee has issued 38 subpoenas in its investigation, including to Drewniak and his wife, a Christie fundraiser.
The scandal drew national attention after the release of an Aug. 13 e-mail from Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, who wrote: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” She sent it to David Wildstein, who was Christie’s second-ranking appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge. He replied: “Got it.”
Drewniak and Kelly received an e-mail on Sept. 12 from Wildstein that included a two-sentence statement saying that the Port Authority was reviewing “traffic safety patterns” at the bridge, and the agency “has been in contact with Fort Lee police throughout this transition.”
Sokolich and others have said both claims were untrue.
Other e-mails showed that Drewniak used expletives when referring to reporters and his former employer, the Star-Ledger.
The legislative committee yesterday released new text messages, including one that Kelly wrote Aug. 19 to Wildstein.
“We cannot cause traffic problems in front of his house, can we?” Kelly wrote. She referred to a politically influential rabbi, Mendy Carlebach, of South Brunswick, New Jersey.
The committee lifted redactions on some messages after talks between Schar and Wildstein’s lawyer, Alan Zegas, said Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski, co-chairman of the panel.
“There’s no new e-mails that are similar to one that Bridget Kelly sent on Aug. 13, but what it does show is kind of a juvenile, cavalier attitude towards their official responsibilities, joking about the power they had to create traffic or delay flights,” Wisniewski said. “It’s certainly disturbing, and speaks to the need to reform this agency.”
The Aug. 19 exchange began when Wildstein sent a photo to Kelly of Carlebach with U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, according to The Record newspaper.
“I think this qualifies as some sort of stalking,” Kelly wrote. “You are too much.”
“He is Jewish Cid Wilson,” Wildstein wrote in an apparent reference to a man from Leonia, New Jersey, who is active in politics, according to The Record.
“You are really so funny,” Kelly wrote. “He is. No doubt.”
“And he has officially pissed me off,” Wildstein wrote.
“We cannot cause traffic problems in front of his house, can we?” Kelly wrote.
“Flights to Tel Aviv all mysteriously delayed,” Wildstein wrote.
“Perfect,” Kelly wrote.
Carlebach is a Port Authority chaplain who also served in that role at the Republican National Conventions in 2004 and 2008. He joined Christie at a Sept. 11 memorial at New York City’s Ground Zero in 2011. In 2012, he was part of a delegation that visited Israel with Christie, and he also lit the menorah during a Hanukkah reception at Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Princeton.
Carlebach said in an e-mailed statement that he has worked with “a number of governors and their administrations.”
“My work has always been apolitical and I have no knowledge nor understanding of why my name was mentioned in these exchanges,” he said.
Zegas and Michael Critchley, a lawyer for Kelly, didn’t immediately return calls yesterday seeking comment on the newly released texts.
Fishman’s prosecutors interviewed Sokolich for more than three hours on Feb. 21, according to the mayor’s attorney, Timothy Donohue. They have also questioned Hoboken, New Jersey, Mayor Dawn Zimmer, a Democrat who claimed Christie’s administration threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy aid if she didn’t back a redevelopment project.
Sokolich met for four hours yesterday with attorney Reid Schar, the counsel to the legislative committee examining the tie-ups, Donohue said.
“Since there are ongoing criminal and legislative investigations, I do not want to get into any specifics, other than to say we discussed the lane closures,” Donohue said in a statement. “Obviously, the mayor is as anxious as everyone else to find out who was involved in the planning and execution of this scheme.”