Nation

State panel to investigate New Jersey bridge scandal

TRENTON, N.J. — For Gov. Chris Christie, the questions about the traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge are just beginning, as New Jersey Democrats announced a new investigative committee that would push to figure out who ordered the four-day traffic snarl, and why.

Democratic leaders in the state Assembly said the committee would begin with the bridge closure and possibly expand to look into other allegations of political retribution by Christie, considered one of the leading contenders in the 2016 Republican presidential field.

"An abuse of power like this is not something we will stand for," said Vincent Prieto, the Assembly speaker-elect.

Other investigators have begun looking into the Christie administration. The U.S. attorney's office, where Christie once served as New Jersey's top federal prosecutor, announced an inquiry into the bridge tieups last week. And the inspector general at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will audit how the state spent $25 million in Superstorm Sandy aid funds, according to the office of Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat.

READ: Controversial Christie staffer emails

The Assembly's committee, with subpoena power and its own independent counsel, will include both Republicans and Democrats. Its leader will be Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who said he had doubts about Christie's assertion that he was in the dark about the impetus for lane closures until last week.

Administration emails released last week by Wisniewski, who chairs the transportation committee, showed that several top Christie allies exchanged emails celebrating the traffic hassles and expressing anger about the lanes being reopened by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's appointees on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The closures created four days of nightmarish traffic jams in Fort Lee, the town at the New Jersey end of the bridge, angering motorists and delaying emergency vehicles. Christie's officials said the idea was to study traffic patterns, but no evidence of such a study has emerged.

"When you have so many people in his upper level senior circle who received information about the fallout, the traffic jams, and the effort to spin the traffic jams … it strains credibility to say that all of the senior people whose job it is to keep the governor informed did absolutely nothing with these emails," Wisniewski said at a Trenton news conference Monday.

Christie's office did not respond to a request for comment.

One of the early witnesses probably will be Bridget Kelly, the deputy chief of staff Christie fired last week after the release of an email she sent last summer to David Wildstein, a Christie insider at the Port Authority: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

PHOTOS: Scenes from “Bridgegate”

Wildstein has resigned, along with Bill Baroni, Christie's top appointee on the bi-state authority.

Some have speculated that the motive was to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, for not endorsing Christie's bid for reelection. Sokolich has confirmed to reporters that he was approached about the possibility early last year.

Wisniewski said he would look into whether there were other possible connections, including a huge real estate development being built near the bridge. He noted that some of the email exchanges started on government accounts but were switched to private accounts, which he said proved "an improper purpose" was behind the plan.

"We need to get to the bottom of why Bridget Kelly thought she had the authority to get the lanes closed," Wisniewski said. "We don't know, but we need to find out."

He said it was possible the inquiry would cover other allegations of abuse of power by Christie and his political team. "We'll see where the evidence leads us," Wisniewski said.

Pallone said he asked the inspector general's office to look into the decision to award a tourism marketing deal for $4.7 million to a firm that proposed using Christie in the ads. The second-highest bidder's price was just $2.5 million; it did not suggest ads with the governor.

"It is inappropriate for taxpayer-funded dollars that are critical to our state's recovery from this natural disaster to fund commercials that could potentially benefit a political campaign," Pallone wrote.

Christie's office has called the audit a "conveniently timed announcement" and said New Jersey shore tourism did a lot better than expected, in part because of that "Stronger Than the Storm" campaign.

"We're confident that any review will show that the ads were a key part in helping New Jersey get back on its feet after being struck by the worst storm in state history," Christie spokesman Colin Reed said in a statement.

joseph.tanfani@latimes.com

Twitter: @jtanfani

alana.semuels@latimes.com

Twitter: @alansemuels

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