April 15 (Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s former ally David Wildstein told colleagues that he got clearance from the “front office” for the George Washington Bridge lane closings, Christie told investigators.
Wildstein, once a top official at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which runs the bridge, told someone that he got permission to shut down the lanes from Sept. 9 to 12, Christie told lawyers from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP. A summary of Christie’s interviews with the firm was released yesterday, along with those of 74 other people.
An investigation commissioned by Christie concluded on March 27 that he had no advance knowledge of a plot to close the lanes. Wildstein and Bridget Anne Kelly, a former Christie deputy chief of staff, sought to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, for unknown political reasons through the tie-ups, according to the report, prepared by Gibson Dunn.
“The governor recalled someone (though he does not recollect who), relaying that Wildstein had said something along the lines of, ‘I’m not stupid; I got this cleared by the front office,’” according to a 12-page summary of three Christie interviews.
Christie, a Republican weighing a White House run, also said he didn’t recall talking to Wildstein and his former top appointee at the Port Authority, William Baroni, at a Sept. 11 ceremony at the World Trade Center in New York. Christie’s press secretary Michael Drewniak told Gibson Dunn that Wildstein told him at a Dec. 4 dinner he discussed the lane closings with Christie during that ceremony.
“The governor has no specific recollection of conversations with them, other than light banter,” according to the memo. “Asked whether anyone raised the subject of traffic in Fort Lee prior to or at this event, the governor responded that he had no such recollection, and any such mention would not have been memorable” because traffic issues occur regularly.
Gibson Dunn released the 75 interview summaries at the request of a state legislative committee studying who shut the lanes and why. The memos underpinned the report the law firm released in March, which Democrats assailed as a whitewash.
Gibson Dunn didn’t interview Wildstein, Kelly and William Stepien, who each asserted their constitutional right against self-incrimination before the state legislature. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich also wasn’t interviewed by the firm.
As Democrats in the legislature pressed for answers about the lane closings in December, Christie’s top aides decided that Wildstein and Baroni had to resign. Christie spoke on Dec. 12 to Stepien, who ran his campaigns in 2009 and 2013. Stepien denied any involvement in the lane closings.
“Stepien added that Wildstein would come to him with 50 crazy ideas each week and that Stepien would tell Wildstein that Stepien was not in the government anymore, so Wildstein had to run things by Trenton,” the state capital, Christie said.
Christie decided on Jan. 8 to fire Kelly and cut ties to Stepien after the publication of dozens of e-mails released to the legislative committee by Wildstein.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote to Wildstein on Aug. 13. “Got it,” Wildstein wrote.
Christie recounted a Jan. 8 staff meeting, the report said.
“He got emotional, and with tears in his eyes, asked if anyone else had anything else to do with the lane realignment, because he could not get sandbagged again,” Gibson Dunn wrote. “One-by-one, each person denied involvement.”
Christie decided to part ways with Stepien because of language he used in e-mails about Sokolich, “but also because he felt he could no longer trust Stepien.”
The governor told Republican political consultant Michael DuHaime to find out whether Stepien “had a relationship with Kelly.” The Gibson Dunn report said they had a romance that summer which cooled after Stepien ended the relationship.
After DuHaime spoke to Stepien, he reported: “Stepien was upset, and claimed he did nothing wrong and did not deserve to be thrown under the bus. DuHaime also reported that Stepien acknowledged a relationship with Kelly, but said that it was over. DuHaime further reported that Stepien was angry that he could not tell the governor his side of the story in person.”
Wildstein sought to speak to Drewniak “fairly regularly,” according to the summary of Drewniak’s recollections. Drewniak said he was often too busy to speak for extended periods.
“Drewniak recalled very few instances in which Wildstein was present for a substantive conversation with the governor,” according to the summary. When Baroni came to Trenton to see Christie, “Wildstein usually sat outside of the meeting.”
“Drewniak commented that Wildstein knew his place, and would sit outside of the room and provide information when asked because he was the ‘fact guy,’” according to the summary.
“It was typical for Wildstein -- who was always concerned about what the governor’s office thought of him -- to call Drewniak before and/or after a Port Authority event that the governor attended to make sure the event went well,” the summary stated.
Jim Gilroy, who was responsible for planning the governor’s events, said Wildstein was his contact person within the Port Authority, according to a summary of his interview.
“When asked what his impressions were of Wildstein, Gilroy said that Wildstein was someone who got things done,” the memo said. Sometimes, Gilroy said, Wildstein “offered his advance team gifts or favors,” and Gilroy wasn’t certain whether Wildstein was joking or serious.
Democratic Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg, who is co-chairwoman of a panel investigating the closings, has been a persistent critic.
Kevin O’Dowd, Christie’s chief of staff, told Gibson Dunn on Nov. 18 that Weinberg didn’t think the governor’s office had anything to do with the lane closings, but “those ‘two frat boys have to go,’” according to his summary. “O’Dowd assumed that Senator Weinberg was referring to Baroni and Wildstein.”
A summary of an interview with Christine Renna, a Kelly subordinate, described her boss’s reaction to publication on Jan. 8 of her “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” e-mail. Kelly called Renna at work, according to the report.
“Kelly was hysterically crying and said that she was sorry,” according to the report. “Renna asked Kelly if she was going to come into the office, and Kelly said no. Kelly hung up and called Renna back at some point later in the day to ask Renna to log into Kelly’s Twitter and delete Kelly’s account, because people were tweeting ‘mean things’ about Kelly.”
Former Christie aide Matt Mowers, now the state Republican executive director in New Hampshire, worked under Kelly in the Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs unit.
“Mowers said that Kelly was concerned with Stepien’s opinion of her,” according to his summary. “Kelly often tried to emulate Stepien,” and while she rose quickly, “she did not have the same background and understanding of government and how it operated as others in the office did, such as Stepien.”
Mowers also said that when he sought the endorsement of Fort Lee Mayor Sokolich, a Democrat who didn’t back Christie for governor last year, the mayor declined “for at least two reasons.”
“Mayor Sokolich said he had financial interests in certain Democratic towns -- including Cliffside Park -- that he feared losing were he to endorse the governor,” the report said.
“Mowers explained that Mayor Sokolich had a private law practice that focused on real estate and zoning law, and, as part of that practice, Mayor Sokolich had contracts with Democratic towns in New Jersey,” it said. “Mayor Sokolich said he was concerned that he would lose contracts if he endorsed the governor, a Republican.”