Panel Failure to Link Christie Has Allies Saying EnoughElise Young
Eleven months after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie apologized for deliberate traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge, no evidence has linked him to the plot. His Republican allies say it’s time to end the hunt.
A 136-page report scheduled to be released today by a legislative panel investigating any role Christie may have had in the scandal is inconclusive. Democrats leading the probe say their work isn’t done and plan to call more witnesses.
Members aren’t “in a position currently to conclude what Governor Christie himself knew about the lane closures, or when and how his knowledge of these events developed,” according to a copy of their findings obtained by Bloomberg News.
Christie, a 52-year-old Republican who says he’ll announce next year whether he’ll run for president in 2016, has denied any role in the lane closings, a claim backed up by an internal report. The matter remains under criminal investigation by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman in Newark, and the lawmakers’ review will resume today at their 10th public meeting.
“You still have the chairman backpedaling, saying it’s possible the governor was involved,” said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, a Republican panel member from River Vale. “There’s not one iota, not one shred, not one parcel of evidence that implicates him in any fashion whatsoever.”
The four Republicans on the 12-member panel issued a 119-page statement today accusing Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat leading the committee, of using the probe to “take down Governor Chris Christie, the biggest political threat to state and national Democrats, and in so doing, become the next Democrat gubernatorial candidate.”
It’s time to end the probe, Republican committee member Amy Handlin, an assemblywoman from Red Bank, said at a press conference before the committee meeting. Handlin said she will make a motion for any additional costs associated with lawmakers’ investigation to be paid by the Democratic state committee.
The closing of some approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge, the busiest motor-vehicle bridge in the world, froze morning commutes in the New Jersey town of Fort Lee for four days in September 2013. Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich got no response from phone calls and e-mails to staff of the bridge’s operator, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, asking whether the gridlock was payback for not endorsing Christie.
Publicly, the Port Authority said the lane closings were part of a traffic study. In January, though, e-mails showed that Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s director of legislative relations, had communicated a month prior with David Wildstein, a Port Authority director of interstate capital projects. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote. Wildstein replied: “Got it.”
Christie, at an almost two-hour news conference on Jan. 9, apologized for his administration’s involvement and said he had nothing to do with the plot. Kelly was fired, he said. Wildstein had resigned before the e-mails were publicized.
The governor’s internal review, released in March and overseen by the law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, put the blame on Kelly and Wildstein, who both declined to provide testimony to lawmakers. The report accounted for at least $6.52 million of legal costs exceeding $7 million.
The governor declined to comment on the interim report on Dec. 5, while on an energy trade trip in Canada.
“The committee’s work has simply corroborated our comprehensive investigation,” Randy Mastro, the lead attorney on the internal report, said by e-mail on Dec. 5.
The lawmakers suspended hearings in July, when Fishman asked them to delay calling some witnesses to preserve the integrity of his own investigation.
At least six federal indictments in connection with the scandal may be handed down as soon as January, NBC New York reported on Dec. 5, citing unidentified people with knowledge of the investigation. Those facing charges include former Christie staff and former Port Authority officials, according to the report.
Michael Critchley, Kelly’s attorney, and Alan Zegas, representing Wildstein, didn’t return telephone calls for comment on the legislative panel’s findings.
‘Lack of Curiosity’
Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr., a Republican from Westfield who isn’t on the panel, said the committee would be duplicating Fishman’s work if it calls more witnesses.
“It’s absolutely time to stand down,” Kean said by telephone on Dec. 5.
Wisniewski and Senator Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Teaneck who is co-chairwoman of the panel, said members will press for answers about deleted text messages among administration members and more detail on when Christie became aware of the jams.
“The governor’s office showed a curious lack of curiosity to mounting indications that serious harms had been inflicted on thousands of New Jersey motorists for political rather than legitimate policy reasons,” Wisniewski and Weinberg said in a joint statement on Dec. 5. “Our work is not finished.”
Wisniewski has said the panel will use its findings to create transparency legislation for the Port Authority, whose leaders are political appointees of governors from New York and New Jersey. The agency operates bridges and tunnels to Manhattan, six airports, bus terminals and cargo ports.
Handlin said Democratic members’ attempts to implicate Christie had taken precedence over fact-gathering.
“We’ve spent $1 million, roughly, to end up exactly where we started,” Handlin said. “We have zero proof of who did what. We have zero evidence that the governor was involved in any way.”