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Christie's former deputy depicted as 'participant' in bridge scheme

Chris ChristieGovernmentPoliticsBridgegatePort Authority of New York and New Jersey
Ex-Christie aide: "Bridget [Anne Kelly] was not an architect but I think she was a participant" in bridge case
Ex-aide to N.J. Gov. Christie describes an office where lines of politics and government policy became blurred

A former staffer for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said she did not believe that her former boss, Bridget Anne Kelly, came up with the scheme to create a giant traffic jam at the foot of the George Washington Bridge.

Christina Genovese Renna, the first witness to testify Tuesday at a joint state legislative committee hearing looking into the bridge scandal that was linked to Christie's office, depicted Kelly as a former friend who became overwhelmed with the job and her personal life and became erratic.

Renna said she thought Kelly, then the governor's deputy chief of staff, had trouble making decisions.

"I think Bridget was not an architect but I think she was a participant in whatever this was," Renna said to the Democratic-led committee. She said she had an "an educated guess" and "theories" about who was responsible, but declined to reveal them.

"I'll take a pass," Renna said.

The committee hearing on Tuesday ended with more detail about the inner workings of Christie's office but no new information about who else might have been involved in the plan to redirect traffic last September. Kelly was fired after the committee obtained an email from her to David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the bridge, saying it was "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," the New Jersey city where the bridge lane closures caused a massive traffic jam. 

Renna, director of an outreach office for local governments, spent most of the day describing an office where the lines of politics and government policy became blurred. During Christie's campaign for reelection last year, the staffers who dealt with mayors in their government jobs were enlisted in a "voluntary" campaign to try to rack up Democratic endorsements -- part of Christie's effort to buff his national image in preparation for a possible 2016 presidential run.

In her testimony, an at-times emotional Renna gave an ardent defense of the work of her office, which she said didn't allow political concerns to get in the way of "good government."

She gave a somewhat different account in her interview with lawyers hired through the Christie administration, saying her staff would receive "mandatory directives along the lines of 'do not rush to return this mayor's phone call,'" according to a memo written by the lawyers. In her testimony Tuesday, Renna said the attorneys had "mischaracterized" her remarks; she said there was no "do not call" list of politicians out of favor with Christie.

Renna said politicians out of favor weren't exactly ignored, but no longer enjoyed what she called "proactive outreach."

New Jersey state Assemblyman John Wisniewski, co-chairman of the committee, said the testimony showed "significant contradictions" with the internal report. But he said Renna made it clear that, in Christie’s office, it was difficult to draw a line "where campaigning stopped and government started."

The committee has received emails and other documents but has been stymied in its hunt for records from two key witnesses, Kelly and former Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien. Because a federal grand jury is investigating, a state judge agreed that forcing them to turn over records would violate their 5th Amendment right not to incriminate themselves.

Four other witnesses have been called to appear, including Michael Drewniak, Christie's press secretary, and Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority. Federal prosecutors are continuing a criminal investigation.

In January 2013, Renna received an email from Stepien, another staffer who went on to run Christie's reelection campaign, saying he had approved a "target list" of mayors who might be open to endorsing Christie.

"Super super excited," Renna replied. On Tuesday, she said she wished she had chosen her words differently.

In August, Renna said she had to field angry emails from Kelly after one of her staffers set up a meeting with Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich without permission. Renna said she advised the employee "for his protection" to quit talking to Sokolich. She said she never asked what the problem was, saying she feared for her job and didn't want to rile Kelly by overstepping her boundaries.

After the lane closure scandal became public, Renna said Kelly asked her to delete an email that she sent about  Sokolich. "I thought it was strange. And I thought it was paranoid," said Renna, who deleted it from her government account but sent it to a private account to preserve it.

"You know, Christina," Renna quoted Kelly in that conversation, "if someone tells me something is OK, who am I to question them?" When Renna tried to follow up, she said Kelly cut her off: "I don't need your vindication."

The morning Kelly was fired, she called Renna to say: "You can't trust anyone, Christina."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Chris ChristieGovernmentPoliticsBridgegatePort Authority of New York and New Jersey
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