FLEMINGTON, N.J. – The two key issues dogging New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration – so-called “Bridgegate” and allegations that the Republican misused Hurricane Sandy relief funds – came to a head at the governor’s town hall meeting on Thursday.
There weren’t any hecklers casting a shadow over the governor’s event like at the last two town hall meetings, but it was the first time someone directly asked about his staffers’ alleged scheme to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge – seemingly for political retribution – last September.
A man, who later identified himself as Fred Canter of Mountain Lakes, N.J., asked the governor about Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor’s former deputy chief of staff who sent the now-infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email.
Canter wanted to know if Kelly was fired because she lied to Christie – the reason Christie gave at his January press conference in the aftermath of the scandal – or if it was for the action of the lane closures themselves. Christie insisted that Kelly would have been given the boot even if she had been honest about the lane closings.
The governor has insisted that he had no prior knowledge of the scheme. “What happened was absolutely unacceptable – I didn’t know anything about it and if I did I wouldn’t have permitted it,” Christie told the crowd of approximately 500 people in the reliably Republican borough. “The offense, first and foremost, is not being honest.” He told residents to “not take my silence on the act that the act was callous.”
Christie, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, insisted he is doing “everything” he can do to make sure “something like this doesn’t happen again.”
When Canter argued that Christie should have explicitly called the lane closing illegal, the governor shot back: “You don’t have the luxury to give your opinion on that when there’s an investigation going on that you have to cooperate with in every way.”
Canter told msnbc.com after the town hall that he still feels like Christie has not “taken responsibility for the action” within his administration. The governor has previously insisted that “Bridgegate” has not come up by questioners at the town halls – he has held six this year since the scandal unfolded – because Garden Staters care about “real” issues.
One woman who asked an unrelated question – about the missing Malaysian airliner— sympathized with Christie, telling him it seems many are finding him “guilty before you’re proven innocent. I don’t think enough people are defending you.”
The governor replied that it was a part of being in public life and to not feel sorry for him. “At the end of this, what matters to me the most about all this is that we find the truth about everything, what everybody knew, and get it out to the public so they can make an evaluation, so I can make an evaluation and then we move on to do our jobs,” he insisted.
Christie added that whoever is to blame should be held responsible but he’s not going to sit around and have a “pity party … I have a job to do.”
Kelly and Bill Stepien, Christie’s former two-time campaign manager, are both under investigation by a state legislative committee. They have pleaded the Fifth Amendment and are refusing to abide by a subpoena, insisting that handing over any information to the committee on the lane closures would violate their rights against self-incrimination. A judge is expected a ruling in the near future on if they must abide by the subpoena.
Christie is also being audited by the United States Housing and Urban Development on the potential misuse of Hurricane Sandy relief money to produce tourism ads featuring his family during his bid for a second term in office.
At the town hall, Rosi Efthim of Flemington criticized Christie for spending relief funds on the ads featuring his family instead of giving more grants for small businesses. Efthim is an editor at BlueJersey.com.
Christie took issue with her calculations on the subject, but insisted the ads helped increase tourism substantially to the Jersey Shore. “I make no apologies for that tourism ad campaign. It was effective and it worked,” he said.
The governor is forging ahead. Christie, who chairs the Republican Governor’s Association was in Michigan on Wednesday to raise campaign money for Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land and Gov. Rick Snyder.
Christie will host another town hall in Belmar, N.J. next week.