By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)
TRENTON, N.J.– The legislative panel investigating the Port Authority is turning its attention to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s chief of staff, one of two men tasked with questioning employees in the governor’s office about their involvement in the George Washington Bridge lane closures.
It was Kevin O’Dowd who repeatedly asked Bridget Anne Kelly, the former deputy chief of staff at the heart of the scandal, whether she was involved with closing the lanes after members of the administration were told in December that she may have knowledge of the incident.
Another senior member of Christie’s staff told O’Dowd on Dec. 5 that Kelly may have information about the lane closures, a conversation the governor walked in on. That was one of several instances in which senior staff who report directly to the governor were warned that others close to Christie could be involved early on, as reported by The Record on Sunday.
Christie nominated O’Dowd, a former federal prosecutor who worked with the governor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, to be New Jersey’s attorney general in December before Kelly and others close to the governor were tied to the lane closures. O’Dowd’s nomination is still pending and must be confirmed by the state Senate.
O’Dowd was subpoenaed to appear before the committee on Monday, the latest signal that the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation is pushing ahead with its inquiry. It was forced to postpone testimony from Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority, at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is conducting its own probe into the matter.
Wednesday’s announcement that O’Dowd was ordered to appear came a day after the panel completed its final scheduled hearing, taking testimony from William “Pat” Schuber, the first Port Authority commissioner to appear before the panel.
Republicans on the committee have complained that the panel is focusing too much on Christie’s office and not enough on reforming the Port Authority. Democrats leading the panel say they need to understand what happened before they can recommend changes.
The panel’s leaders say they are working to get to the bottom of the lane closures without the cooperation of Kelly and Bill Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager, who successfully fought legislative subpoenas for documents in court. The committee is also weighing sending new subpoenas to Kelly and Stepien.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, co-chairman of the committee, said the panel is putting together a list of other individuals who would be called to testify. He said O’Dowd is a key witness because of his close interactions with Kelly.
“There are a number of individuals we can call in and he clearly is relevant because he, among other things, was Bridget Kelly’s boss and, based on the documents and the testimony thus far, is one of the individuals that had relatively soon after the event known that it had happened and that there was some controversy about it,” Wisniewski said.
O’Dowd’s attorney, Paul Zoubek, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
O’Dowd also is among the 75 individuals interviewed by a team of attorneys from Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, the law firm Christie hired to conduct an internal investigation.
The 23-page document that Gibson Dunn produced summarized two meetings with O’Dowd that touched on everything from when the governor’s staff first learned Kelly might have knowledge of the lane closures, to the steps Christie took before and after learning of an infamous e-mail and a conversation O’Dowd had with lawmakers about postponing his attorney general confirmation hearing.
On Dec. 12, Christie told O’Dowd and Charles McKenna, the governor’s chief counsel at the time, to talk with staff in his office to determine what they knew.
O’Dowd reached out to Kelly that day and followed up with her the next day before and after Christie called a staff meeting ahead of a news conference he had scheduled to announce a new deputy executive director at the Port Authority. That was the second news conference where Christie denied having any knowledge of the lane closures and during which he said none of his staff was involved.
That day, Kelly turned over two e-mails to O’Dowd, one was a complaint about the lane closures a staff member received from the Fort Lee mayor, another was a letter that state Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat, sent to Schuber about the lane closures, which was also sent to Christie’s office.
O’Dowd told Gibson Dunn both e-mails supported Kelly’s claim that she had no advance knowledge of the lane closures. He said he did not question the staff member and supervisor who raised the mayor’s concerns because he didn’t think the communication was unusual.
Kelly repeatedly told O’Dowd she had no involvement in the lane closures before The Record reported Jan. 8 that she wrote in an e-mail, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” according to O’Dowd’s interview memorandum.
The governor’s office first learned that Kelly may have knowledge and e-mails about the incident a month earlier from David Wildstein, the Port Authority official she e-mailed.
Michael Drewniak, the governor’s press secretary, raised this issue with O’Dowd after he had dinner with Wildstein on Dec. 4. At that time, Wildstein maintained that the lane closures were part of a traffic study and that he had notified Kelly and Christie’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien.
Wildstein turned over documents to the committee earlier this year, but cited his Fifth Amendment right in refusing to testify before the panel.
After Kelly’s e-mail became public, O’Dowd was among the staff Christie called to the governor’s mansion Jan. 8 to ensure no one else was involved. O’Dowd told the attorneys that there was a discussion about lawyers for Kelly and for Stepien, whom the governor also cut ties with because of his tone in emails about the lane closures after they occurred. O’Dowd said he could not remember who suggested the lawyers or who contacted them. Kelly has subsequently retained a different attorney.
O’Dowd is the fourth person in Christie’s office called to testify before lawmakers. Drewniak fielded questions last month, as did Christina Renna, a former supervisor in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, and Matt Mowers, who worked with Renna before leaving to work on Christie’s campaign fulltime.
Renna’s and Mowers’ testimony highlighted the overlap between staff who worked with local officials in Christie’s office and the efforts of the governor’s campaign to seek Democratic endorsements. Christie has since disbanded that office and rolled its functions into the Office of Constituent Relations on the recommendations of Gibson Dunn.
Wisniewski said the committee it trying to determine whether someone implied or explicitly told Kelly that she could order lane closures.
“Christina Renna testified that while she believed Bridget Kelly had a hand in the lane closures, she also believed Bridget Kelly wasn’t the architect,” Wisniewski said. “Who was is still an unanswered question.”
AFP Photo/Eric Thayer