Port Authority Chief Subpoenaed as Bridge Probe Widens
The probe of lane closures at the George Washington Bridge reached the top of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as lawmakers subpoenaed Executive Director Patrick Foye along with members of Governor Chris Christie’s inner circle.
The Assembly committee investigating the matter issued subpoenas yesterday to 17 people and three organizations, according to Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the Democrat leading the probe. He declined to identify them until all had been notified. Chris Valens, a Port Authority spokesman, said today that Foye expects to receive the request and will comply.
The September lane closings backed up miles of road in Fort Lee, the New Jersey town of 37,500 that abuts the bridge to Manhattan, and whose Democratic mayor didn’t endorse the Republican governor’s re-election. Christie, who will be sworn in for a second term on Jan. 21, has said he had no knowledge of the act, which threatens his national political ambitions.
“We’re going to follow the facts wherever they may lead us, and, in order to do that, this committee needs to continue its investigation work,” Wisniewski of Sayreville, told reporters yesterday in Trenton.
Christie last week fired a deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, 41, saying she lied to him about whether anyone on his team was involved in the closings. E-mails and text messages obtained by Bloomberg and other news organizations included one from she wrote Aug. 13 to David Wildstein, the Port Authority official who ordered the lanes closed.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she wrote. He replied, “Got it.”
The latest round of subpoena targets is more than double the seven people who have already been served in the probe.
Among those the committee plans to call on are Kevin O’Dowd, Christie’s pick for attorney general and his former chief of staff, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions who asked not to be identified because they aren’t authorized to disclose the list of recipients.
Also slated to receive the orders: Kelly; Bill Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager; Charles McKenna, the governor’s former chief counsel; Regina Egea, head of the state authorities unit in the governor’s office at the time of the closures; spokesmen Michael Drewniak and Colin Reed; Matthew Mowers, a former campaign adviser; and Maria Comella, deputy chief of staff for communications and planning, the people said.
“This started out as an investigation into the Port Authority operations and finances and now has led us into the governor’s office,” Wisniewski said earlier this week.
Tom Hester, a spokesman for Wisniewski, declined to confirm any of the targets today and said in an e-mail that the Assembly hopes to release the names in one comprehensive list.
The subpoenas give the targets two weeks to turn over information, said Wisniewski, who expects hearings to begin in mid-February after the panel has time to review the documents.
Also yesterday, U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who’d demanded answers from the bi-state Port Authority, released documents that said Wildstein told agency staff not to alert the town of Fort Lee about the move.
Wildstein “made it clear that he would control the communication about the toll lane closures,” the authority said in a response made public yesterday to questions posed by Rockefeller, who is chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Wildstein, who attended high school with Christie, resigned last month. He failed to tell Foye about the lane closings, the Port Authority said in its answers to Rockefeller’s questions.
“The Port Authority officials who ordered the September 9-13 George Washington Bridge lane closures did not follow their agency’s own procedures,” Rockefeller said.
Bill Baroni, who was Christie’s top executive appointee at the authority, told lawmakers in November that the morning rush-hour closings of two of three approach lanes were for a traffic study. He also said he knew about the move before it took place.
“The Port Authority’s response provides zero evidence that the purpose of these closures was to conduct a legitimate traffic study,” Rockefeller said.
Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, protested the closings in a Sept. 12 letter to Baroni and questioned whether there were “punitive overtones” associated with the decision. The mayor got no response.
The e-mails show Kelly, Baroni, Wildstein and Stepien delighting in Sokolich’s frustration. Baroni resigned last month, and Christie cut ties with Stepien.
Democrats who control the New Jersey legislature are investigating whether Christie or other members of his administration had knowledge of the closings and whether they tried to cover it up. The Assembly and Senate voted yesterday to create two inquiry panels and reauthorize subpoena power for legislative panels looking into the matter.
Senator Loretta Weinberg, head of the Senate investigatory committee, plans to issue separate subpoenas, including to David Samson, Christie’s appointee as Port Authority chairman; and William “Pat” Schuber, a commissioner appointed by Christie in 2011, said Rich McGrath, a spokesman for the lawmaker, a Teaneck Democrat whose district includes Fort Lee.
Paul J. Fishman, the U.S. attorney in New Jersey, also is probing the matter, according to a spokeswoman, Rebekah Carmichael. Christie, 51, has said he has nothing to hide and will direct his staff to cooperate.
Wildstein, who was subpoenaed by the Assembly to testify, invoked his right to remain silent. The panel ruled him in contempt. His attorney, Alan Zegas, told the panel he might be more cooperative if he received immunity from law enforcement.
The Assembly Jan. 15 said it hired Reid Schar, the lead prosecutor in the corruption trials of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, to lead its investigation of the lane closings. Schar, a partner at the Chicago law firm Jenner & Block LLP, will be paid from the Assembly’s budget. In a letter to the Assembly yesterday, Jenner & Block agreed to fees of $350 an hour for partners and $300 an hour for non-partners.
The Christie administration yesterday said it retained Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP to assist with the inquiries. Attorney Randy Mastro, a deputy mayor under former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, will lead the firm’s efforts, according to a statement from Christie’s office.
Reed, the Christie spokesman, declined to comment on the rate that Gibson Dunn will be paid or the terms of its engagement.
Drewniak didn’t respond to a call to his mobile phone or e-mail seeking comment on behalf of himself or any of the administration officials set to receive the subpoenas. Comella, who met with Christie yesterday in her office along with Reed, didn’t respond to a message left with her receptionist.
At an event in Manahawkin yesterday for Hurricane Sandy relief, Christie didn’t mention the bridge matter directly, though he said his job comes with “all kinds of challenges, as you know, that come out of nowhere to test you.”
Christie was scheduled to be in Camden this afternoon for a ceremonial swearing in of Faustino Fernandez-Vina, New Jersey’s new state Supreme Court justice. He then heads to Florida for a weekend of events for the Republican Governors Association, for which he is chairman.
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