New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s epic apology surrounding last year’s controversial lane closure on the George Washington Bridge may be behind him – but that doesn’t mean he’s anywhere near out of trouble just yet.
The Republican governor’s aides could be served with subpoenas this week over the alleged scheme to cause traffic jams to punish a Democratic mayor. And on top of that, Christie – a potential 2016 presidential candidate – is now being probed by federal officials for his use of Hurricane Sandy relief funds to produce Garden State tourism ads featuring him and his family.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski – who chairs a committee looking into the closures – said he plans to issue subpoenas for documents from Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and spokesman Michael Drewniak. He even suggested Christie could be impeached if the scheme is linked back to him.
“Using the George Washington Bridge, a public resource, to exact a political vendetta, is a crime,” Wisniewski told NBC News. “Having people use their official position to have a political game is a crime. So if those tie back to the governor in anyway, it clearly becomes an impeachable offense.”
When the allegations first surfaced, Christie initially said the lane closures that ensued the week of Sept. 9 were not politically motivated and that his staff wasn’t involved. But after emails were made public suggesting otherwise, Christie apologized but profusely denied having any knowledge of the plan. Wisniewski said he finds that hard to believe.
“It’s hard to really accept the governor’s statement that he knew nothing until the other morning,” he said. Christie’s top aides “travel with him, these people discuss things with him every single day. This is not an isolated, unknown story…He knew there was an investigation. He knew people were looking at it, and his senior staff was involved [and]he expects us to believe he knew nothing? I just find that implausible.”
And now the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspector general will look into whether Christie’s office improperly used federal aid money following Superstorm Sandy for political gain. The campaign featured Christie – who chairs the Republican Governor’s Association – and his family during an election year. The federally financed, $25 million Jersey Shore marketing campaign cost $2 million more than a competing bid without the governor.
Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone said the inspector general of HUD “found enough evidence to justify a full-scale audit of the state’s usage of federal funds,” which is expected to take months to complete. Pallone said in requesting the probe back in August that it is “inappropriate” for taxpayer dollars designated for the state’s recovery from the natural disaster to be used to benefit a political campaign.
Last fall, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky – also a potential 2016 presidential candidate – criticized Christie for the ads as well.
“Some of these ads, people running for office put their mug all over these ads while they’re in the middle of a political campaign,” Paul said at a hearing on Superstorm Sandy relief before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “…Do you think there might be a conflict of interest there? You know that’s a real problem. And that’s why when people who are trying to do good and trying to use taxpayers’ money wisely, they’re offended to see our money spent on political ads. You know, that just offensive.”
Colin Reed, a spokesman for Christie, said in a statement that the ad campaign was “just one part of the first action plan approved by the Obama Administration and developed with the goal of effectively communicating that the Jersey Shore was open for business during the first summer after Sandy.”
Reed added: “Federal agency reviews are routine and standard operating procedure with all federally allocated resources to ensure that funds are distributed fairly. We’re confident that any review will show that the ads were a key part in helping New Jersey get back on its feet after being struck by the worst storm in state history.”
Meanwhile, the far right is using the governor’s troubles as a chance to beat up on Christie, who they’ve always seen as a RINO – Republican In Name Only. The long-term impact for Christie, especially when it comes to 2016, is yet to be seen.
Christie is still scheduled to deliver is State of the State address to the New Jersey Legislature on Tuesday. It is not known if he will address the bridge scandal or the probe into the Superstorm Sandy ads.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Rep. Frank Pallone.