A former Port Authority official alleged Friday that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie knew about lane closures on the George Washington Bridge “during the period when the lanes were closed” last September. In a letter to the Port Authority, made public by his lawyer, David Wildstein also contended that he had evidence to support his allegation.
The Christie's administration immediately responded by denying any "prior knowledge" of the lane closures which spurred three days of severe traffic backups at one of the busiest bridges in the country. Emails uncovered in recent weeks suggest the lane closures were orchestrated as part of an alleged plot by members of Christie's inner circle, possibly in an act of political retribution targeted at a Democratic mayor.
"Mr. Wildstein's lawyer confirms what the governor has said all along -- he had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened and whatever Mr. Wildstein's motivations were for closing them to begin with," Christie's administration said in a statement. "As the governor said in a December 13th press conference, he only first learned lanes were closed when it was reported by the press and as he said in his January 9th press conference, had no indication that this was anything other than a traffic study until he read otherwise the morning of January 8th. The governor denies Mr. Wildstein's lawyer's other assertions."
Christie spokesman Colin Reed released an additional statement late Friday: "Just to clear up any lingering confusion: Governor Christie has said each time he has been asked that he first learned about the closing of the lanes on the George Washington Bridge from press accounts after the instance was over."
Wildstein's letter to Darrell Buchbinder, the general counsel at the Port Authority, claimed that the decision to close the lanes was “the Christie administration’s order.”
"It has also come to light that a person within the Christie administration communicated the Christie adminislration's order that certain lanes on the George Washington Bridge were to be closed, and evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference he gave immediately before Mr. Wildstein was scheduled to appear before the Transportation Committee. Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the Governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some," the letter said.
The letter was first reported by the New York Times Friday.
Wildstein resigned from the Port Authority in December amid the ongoing “Bridgegate” controversy over the lane closures. Earlier this month, emails released as part of an investigation showed that Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Christie, directed Port Authority officials to close the bridge lanes three weeks before the traffic jams that ensued the week of Sept. 9. The emails suggested the plan was to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J. whose town sits at the foot of the bridge.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in an email to Wildstein, a Christie-appointed official at the Port Authority, the bistate agency responsible for the bridge. Wildstein replied: “Got it.”
The Christie administration is now enveloped in several state and federal inquiries surrounding the alleged bridge plot and questions about the state's allocation of relief funds for communities hit by Hurricane Sandy. Two weeks ago, the mayor of Hoboken, N.J., said in an interview with msnbc that two officials in the Christie administration had threatened to withhold relief funds until she approved a redevelopment project favored by the governor.
On Friday, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey issued a subpoena to the city of Hoboken seeking documents related to the mayor's allegations.
Separately, lawyers for Christie’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien asked that a subpoena issued by state legislators be withdrawn, arguing it violates his rights. On Jan. 17, a state legislative panel served 20 subpoenas to key members of Christie’s administration and re-election campaign as part of its ongoing investigation.
“The very real possibility that [Stepien's] act of producing documents and things responsive to the subpoena might compel him to furnish a link in the chain of evidence that could be used to ensnare him in the ambiguous circumstances of a criminal prosecution and thus force him to become a witness against himself, in violation of his fundamental right against self-incrimination — is a more than compelling reason to withdraw that instrument,” his lawyers argued in a letter to lawyers representing the legislative committee investigating "Bridgegate."
Stepien was a close adviser to Christie, but the governor cut ties after his alleged role in the lane closures surfaced. Christie has said he didn’t think Stepien was directly involved in any wrong-doing, but he said Stepien showed poor judgment overall. During his Jan. 9 news conference, Christie said he was “disturbed by the tone and behavior and attitude," and the "callous indifference” in Stepien’s emails, which were made public as part of an official inquiry. Documents showed Stepien calling the Fort Lee mayor an “idiot” and suggested he may have been aware of the plan to close the lanes. Stepien would have likely played a big role in Christie’s potential presidential campaign, should the governor decide to run in 2016.
This was supposed to be a celebratory weekend for Christie and New Jersey, which is hosting Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday. On Monday, Christie appeared at a Super Bowl kick-off concert. Christie held a press conference on Wednesday to discuss his efforts to prevent sex-trafficking around the time of the big game. On Thursday, the governor gave an interview to 94WIP sports radio in Philadelphia, on the condition that the subject did not stray away from sports. Earlier Friday, Christie tweeted: “Super Bowl weekend is here!”
But by the end of the day, Wildstein, a high school friend of Christie's, had made his accusations public and the U.S. Attorney's office -- which Christie once ran -- had issued more subpoenas. The Democratic National Committee pounced.
Christie “repeatedly said that he had no knowledge of the lane closures. Today’s revelations raise serious questions about whether that is true," DNC Communications Director Mo Elleithee “I know it’s Super Bowl weekend and Chris Christie doesn’t want to talk about anything but the game, but it looks like he’s going to need to change his plans,” Elleithee said.
Friday evening in Manhattan, Christie made a quick appearance at a birthday party for radio host Howard Stern and introduced musical guest Jon Bon Jovi at the event, according to TODAY.com reporter Anna Chan.
But Monmouth University pollster and political analyst Patrick Murray said Friday that Christie would likely have been more visible in the lead-up to the Super Bowl if he weren't receiving so much negative attention. After all, the NFL has said the 2014 Super Bowl is estimated to bring $550 million to $600 million to the New York/New Jersey area. It was a big get for the Garden State to hold the first-ever outdoor, cold weather Super Bowl.
“He’s been much more low key than he almost certainly planned to be around the Super Bowl,” said Murray.
The Republican governor, who has made no secret of his presidential ambitions, has seen a 10-point drop in support since November, before his administration became embroiled in controversy over several different political schemes, according to a Quinnipiac poll released Friday. The poll added to a trove of surveys out this week showing that Christie, who once led possible GOP presidential contenders, is now slipping in favorability.
Below is the letter from Wildstein's attorney: