New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Monday insisted he never knew that his aides had intentionally fouled up traffic approaches to the George Washington Bridge until after the lanes had been reopened — though he admitted he might have heard about traffic snarls while they were happening and not paid any attention.
Answering questions during his monthly radio call-in show from Trenton, Christie also said that federal prosecutors had subpoenaed records from his office, as part of investigations into possible abuses of power by his administration. He said his staff was already turning over records to prosecutors and to a legislative investigative committee.
Speaking about the bridge scandal for the first time since former aide David Wildstein suggested that the governor was not telling the truth when he denied any knowledge of the September closures, Christie gave a more detailed and nuanced version about just what he knew about the mess, and when.
He said he first knew something was happening when he read an Oct. 1 Wall Street Journal report on an angry email about the lane closures from the Port Authority executive director. "That was the first time it came to my consciousness that this was an issue," he said, adding that when he asked his staff to find out what was going on, they reported that it was a traffic study.
In what appeared to be a slight shift in his explanation, Christie acknowledged that he might have heard traffic reports about the tie-ups while they were happening, weeks before publication of the story he cited. But those would not have registered, he said.
"If I either read that or if someone said something to me about traffic issues up there it wouldn't have been meaningful to me," he said. "There's traffic every day at the George Washington Bridge, at the Lincoln Tunnel, at the Holland Tunnel. I hear those reports on the radio. That's not something that rises to the gubernatorial level."
Christie said he didn't know that any of his aides had played a role in the traffic snarls until after emails surfaced last month, including one to Wildstein from the governor's deputy chief of staff saying, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." At the time, Wildstein was a Christie appointee to the Port Authority, which controls the bridges and tunnels in the New York City area.
"What's going on now, with all this other stuff, is just a game of gotcha," Christie said. "When did I first learn about this or that. Before these lanes were closed, I knew nothing about it. I didn't plan it, I didn't authorize it."
The author of the now-famous email, Bridget Anne Kelly, has refused through her lawyer to turn over documents requested by a subpoena from the committee of state lawmakers investigating the road closures, the Newark Star-Ledger reported Monday.
Kelly's lawyer, Michael Critchley, wrote in a letter to the committee's special counsel that Kelly would assert her constitutional rights against self-incrimination and search and seizure. Kelly was one of two aides fired by Christie after the emails surfaced in January.
The scandal hit as Christie took control of the Republican Governors Assn. and began what many in his party believed was a march toward a 2016 presidential campaign. His poll numbers, nationally and in New Jersey, have plummeted of late, and Democrats have gleefully piled on the former Republican front-runner.
On Monday, shortly after Christie's radio comments, the Democratic National Committee put out an email slamming what it said was Christie's "ever-shifting story."
"It's time for Christie to stop playing the victim and attacking his opponents and explain what involvement his office had in the lane closings," the email said.
Christie's regular monthly appearance on the "Ask the Governor" call-in show came after a week of new developments and headlines in the fast-moving bridge investigation, a week that was supposed to be a celebration of the administration's coup of attracting a Super Bowl to the state. Instead, for Christie it became a slog through continuing questions and headlines about the bridge scandal.
Last Friday, a lawyer for Wildstein, a high school classmate of Christie who resigned his Port Authority post in December as the bridge issue gained ground, sent a letter saying "evidence exists" that Christie knew about the lane closures while they were happening.
Wildstein's lawyer, who is pressing the Port Authority to pay Wildstein's legal bills, has said his client would be willing to testify if he received immunity.
Christie's team went on the counterattack against Wildstein on Saturday, emailing supporters a memo raising questions about his background and saying Wildstein would "do and say anything to save David Wildstein." Wildstein's lawyer did not respond to questions about that memo Monday.
A state committee investigating the matter reported Monday that documents were arriving in response to subpoenas issued to Christie's office, his reelection campaign and top names in his administration and his political inner circle.
Monday was the due date listed on the 20 subpoenas, but a statement from the committee said it had granted "numerous extensions" for more time. There was no word from the committee on when any records might be released to the public; the committee's leaders have said they plan to analyze the documents first.
One Christie aide who received a subpoena resigned Friday. Christina Genovese Renna, who served as a liaison with cities and legislators, said she had been considering the move since shortly after the election and continued to "respect and admire" Christie, according to a statement issued by her lawyer.
Meanwhile, Christie's administration endeavored to change the focus, discussing plans for the next $1.4 billion in Superstorm Sandy aid and marking the progress in the state's recovery. But those efforts have also hit snags; the administration has not given reasons why it fired its main Sandy contractor last month, after complaints about delays in processing grants.
During the call-in show, Christie said he hired a law firm to do an internal investigation, with instructions to be quick and thorough.
"I can't wait for them to be finished so I can get the full story here," he said.