Nation

Former Christie aide says governor knew of bridge lane closures

Chris ChristieBridgegate

A former close aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said through his attorney that the governor knew about the closures of lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge as they were happening, disputing Christie's assertion that he only learned about the traffic mess later.

A lawyer for David Wildstein, who engineered the lane closures while working as a Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said in a letter that the closures came "at the Christie administration's order." The letter said that "evidence exists" to show the governor learned of the closures during the rerouting and the ensuing four-day traffic pileup in Fort Lee, the New Jersey town at the foot of the world's busiest bridge.

The Friday letter to the port authority from attorney Alan Zegas, first reported by the New York Times, does not spell out what that evidence is, or say exactly what Christie knew and when. The letter does not say that Christie himself ordered the traffic redirection, or that he knew about it beforehand.

But the letter, the first sign that a member of Christie's inner circle has broken ranks on the controversy, seemed to promise weeks or months of new revelations and a continuing drag on the Republican governor's national political ambitions. Federal prosecutors are investigating, and a state legislative committee has sent out 20 subpoenas to Christie's office and top officials in his administration.

As the controversy over the September traffic jam mounted, Christie repeatedly said he only learned about the closures from press accounts, after they were over.

"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," Christie said during a marathon news conference this month. "And even then, what I was told was that it was a traffic study."

In a statement issued Friday, Christie's office said Zegas' letter "confirms what the governor has said all along — he had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened." The Christie statement doesn't spell out when he learned about the bridge closures but says the governor denies the letter's "other assertions."

Wildstein, a schoolmate of Christie's at Livingston High School and one of his appointees at the Port Authority, in August received an email from Christie's then-deputy chief of staff: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

"Got it," Wildstein replied. In September, he exchanged emails apparently reveling in the traffic jams and the headaches they were causing for Fort Lee's mayor, who did not endorse Christie for reelection.

During the epic news conference, Christie also downplayed his relationship with Wildstein, saying he barely knew him in high school and rarely spoke to him in Trenton.

"We didn't travel in the same circles in high school," Christie said. "You know, I was the class president and athlete."

Zegas wrote the letter to protest the authority's decision not to pay legal fees for Wildstein, who resigned from the Port Authority in December as controversy over the lane closures grew. It says Wildstein "contests the accuracy of various statements the governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some."

The Democratic National Committee in Washington quickly issued a chronology dating to 1977, when Christie and Wildstein were in high school, aimed at contradicting the governor's earlier effort to distance himself from his appointee.

"We all know what's coming next — Chris Christie and his allies will go after David Wildstein to question his credibility and long-standing ties to Christie," party spokesman Michael Czin said in a blast email to reporters.

As recently as a few months ago, Christie was viewed as the most politically talented and dynamic 2016 presidential contender on the Republican side — one of the few who came armed with a deep field of donors.

But as the cloud of investigations has darkened, GOP operatives and donors have become increasingly skittish about the prospect of a Christie candidacy. Some have questioned his ability to effectively lead the Republican Governors Assn., which he recently took over.

Ana Navarro, a Republican political consultant who served in the administration of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, another potential 2016 contender, said that even before the Wildstein letter on Friday many donors were in "a wait-and-see mode until this is fleshed out."

"Just when the intense media attention was beginning to die down, this bubbles up again, and that's most certainly not helpful to Chris Christie," Navarro said. "I think right now we've hit the pause button. Donors — they're not ditching Christie, and they're not hitching up with Christie."

At the same time, some GOP consultants said Friday that they were waiting to see what proof Wildstein could produce.

"Put up or shut up," Republican strategist Steve Schmidt said.

"So long as Chris Christie is telling the truth, he is likely to get past it. If he was dishonest or disingenuous, then certainly his presidential campaign is over and it's probably an open question whether he's able to survive as governor of New Jersey," he said.

Ben Dworkin, a political analyst at New Jersey's Rider University, cautioned against giving too much weight to Wildstein's statements at this early stage.

"The bottom line is this letter seems designed to maximize its political impact and to entice both the Port Authority to pay for [Wildstein's] legal expenses and for the U.S. attorney to offer immunity," Dworkin said.

He noted the letter was vague about the nature of Wildstein's relationship with Christie as well as how the governor supposedly knew about the lane closures while they were happening.

"Did someone tell the governor?" Dworkin asked. "Was he blind-copied on an email? Does it mean someone showed up in his office and mentioned it? We don't know what the evidence is."

Still, Dworkin suggested the tumult stirred by Wildstein's assertions underscored the political toll the matter continues to take on Christie, whose standing in polls — both nationally and at home — has fallen since the scandal broke.

"This issue isn't going away, and it's going to be hard for Chris Christie to move forward with his own agenda, either for New Jersey or for the country, until it all gets resolved," Dworkin said.

joseph.tanfani@latimes.com

maeve.reston@latimes.com

mark.barabak@latimes.com

.com

maeve.reston@latimes.com

mark.barabak@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
Chris ChristieBridgegate
Comments
Loading