By Shawn Boburg, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)
HACKENSACK, N.J. — An ex-aide to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at the Port Authority on Friday disputed the governor’s account of his knowledge of the September lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.
In a letter, an attorney for David Wildstein, the Port Authority executive who ordered the lane closures, wrote that “evidence exists … 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 … ”
The letter, addressed to Port Authority officials who have declined to pay Wildstein’s legal bills, marks the first time that someone within the Christie administration has implicated the governor directly to the scandal.
“Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the Governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some,” Wildstein’s attorney, Alan Zegas wrote.
The letter does not specify what evidence Wildstein has, and it does not say whether Christie knew of the reasons for the lane closures. Christie has previously said he believed the closures were part of a legitimate traffic study. Wildstein’s attorney has publicly said his client would tell his side of the story if he was granted immunity from criminal prosecution by New Jersey, New York and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Asked if the U.S. Attorney’s Office was aware of Wildstein’s attorney’s allegations and whether it was investigating Christie’s possible knowledge of the lane closures, spokeswoman Rebekah Carmichael said, “We can’t discuss the specifics of an ongoing inquiry.”
Wildstein went to high school with Christie. The governor recommended him for a newly created position at the Port Authority, director of interstate capital projects, in 2010. Wildstein had a reputation as fiercely loyal political operative inside the bi-state agency. It was Wildstein who orchestrated the lane closures after he received an email from Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, that stated: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
In his press conference just before Wildstein was set to testify for a legislative panel investigating the lane closures, the governor announced that he had fired Kelly and he said he did not have a close relationship with Wildstein. He said he didn’t find out about the lane closures until they were reversed.
“There’s no way that anybody would think that I know about everything that’s going on, not only in every agency of government at all times, but also every independent authority that New Jersey either has on its own or by state — both with New York, with Pennsylvania and with Delaware. So what I can tell you is if people find that hard to believe, I don’t know what else to say except to tell them that I had no knowledge of this — of the planning, the execution or anything about it — and that I first found out about it after it was over.”
The Record newspaper has Port Authority photos showing the governor and Wildstein together on the Sept. 11 anniversary, on the third day of the lane closures.
Christie was asked at a Dec. 13 press conference announcing the resignation of his top Port Authority executive whether the lane closures and the problems they caused in Fort Lee were ever brought to his attention the week the lanes were closed.
“Never. No,” the governor said. He added later that the first time he heard about the issue was when an internal email by the executive director was leaked to the media weeks after the closures. “It was certainly well after the whole thing was over before I heard about it.”
Last week, the Port Authority denied Wildstein’s request that the agency pay for his legal representation as multiple investigations unfold, including one by the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey. The Port Authority’s lawyer wrote to Wildstein that paying his legal bills “would not be warranted under the Port Authority’s by-laws.”
The letter released Friday was a response to that decision.
“I would request that you kindly reconsider the Port Authority’s decision to deny Mr. Wildstein payment of his legal fees and indemnification,” it said, adding that the Port Authority did not offer a reason for the denial.
In an indication of fractures between Christie’s former allies, Wildstein’s attorney also questioned why a request for legal representation by Bill Baroni, Christie’s top executive at the Port Authority, was still under consideration. Baroni, Zegas wrote, told a committee, while not under oath, that the lane closures were part of a traffic study, “answers directly at variance with” the subsequent sworn testimony of the agency’s executive director, Pat Foye.
Wildstein’s attorney also included references to other controversies that have bubbled up, but did not say whether he had information about them. Wildstein was intimately involved with internal deliberations of Christie’s inner circle at the Port Authority, including with Baroni and Chairman David Samson.
“Subsequent to Mr. Wildstein testifying, there have been reports that certain Commissioners of the Port Authority have been connected directly or indirectly to land deals involving the Port Authority, that Port Authority funds were allocated to projects connected to persons who supported the administration of Governor Chris Christie or whose political support he sought, with some of the projects having no relationship to the business of the Port Authority, and that Port Authority funds were held back from those who refused to support the Governor.”
Wildstein’s attorney also wrote that a Port Authority lawyer advised Baroni before he went before the legislative committee and defended what he described as a traffic study. “The counseling, as I understand it, was conducted over a period of four to five days, and Mr. Wildstein was present for much of it.” The letter does not name the attorney who advised Baroni, but Christie has placed several attorneys tied to his administration in the Port Authority’s legal department.
The release of the letter came days before a critical moment in the legislative investigation into the lane closures. Responses to 20 subpoenas issued by a joint panel are due Monday, but at least one key player challenged the authority of the committee’s demands for documents.
The lawyer representing Christie’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien sent a lengthy letter to the legislative panel Friday invoking his client’s constitutional protection against self-incrimination. The letter by attorney Kevin Marino cites an ongoing federal grand jury investigation and states that there’s a possibility that documents Stepien provides “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.”
Stepien, Marino wrote, is innocent of any wrongdoing, criminal or otherwise.
Stepien is one of 18 individual who got subpoenas from a legislative panel investigating the September lane closures, apparently an act of political revenge. Assemblyman John Wisniewski said Friday that lawyers for most of the individuals have asked for time extensions or will provide documents on a rolling basis “within a reasonable timeframe.”
Wisniewski said he had not yet read Marino’s letter, which requested that the committee withdraw the supboena to Stepien, and said he would review it with the committee’s special counsel, former federal prosecutor Reid Schar. He said he does expect some documents to be handed over Monday.
“We’ll start getting some documents on Monday, and I think we’ll get a lot by the end of the week. Then we’ll have to start the intensive process of reviewing them,” said Wisniewski, a Democrat.
AFP Photo/Jeff Zelevansky