A former staffer for Gov. Chris Christie said the governor's staff routinely pursued campaign endorsements from Democratic officials and used spreadsheets to track who was on the governor's team.
Christina Genovese Renna testified Tuesday at a legislative hearing here that she knew her boss, Bridget Anne Kelly, was peeved with one mayor in particular, Fort Lee's Mark Sokolich -- and that she ordered one of her staffers to quit talking to the mayor as a result.
About a month later, after Kelly sent an email saying it was "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," another Christie appointee, David Wildstein, ordered the lane closures that snarled Fort Lee traffic for four days and have created a lasting political headache for Christie, considered a potential candidate for president in 2016.
Renna said she never heard why Kelly was peeved with Sokolich -- and she didn't ask.
"Oftentimes information did not flow downward as to why we weren't talking to an elected official," she said, a situation she acknowledged was "frustrating."
Renna is the first witness to testify before the state legislative committee formed to investigate the bridge closures and other allegations of "abuses of power" involving the Christie administration. Renna, who joined the Christie administration in 2012, became head of the governor’s office of intergovernmental affairs, known as IGA, where staff had the role of communicating with mayors and other officials.
In her interview with lawyers hired through the Christie administration, Renna seemed to describe a hardball political atmosphere inside the office; she said 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, Renna said they "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."
The committee is one of the investigations into why lanes were closed leading to the George Washington Bridge in September, apparently in a case of political retribution during Christie's campaign for reelection. Federal prosecutors also have opened an investigation.
As Christie cruised to a reelection victory in 2013, his campaign and staff -- with an eye toward a possible presidential run in 2016 -- continued to aggressively pursue endorsements from Democratic officials in New Jersey, as a way to stress his record as a bipartisan leader.
In January 2013, Renna received an email from Bill 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.
She said the workers had those political conversations on nights and weekends; campaigning on state time is a violation of New Jersey law. "It was a voluntary exercise," she said.
Many of those pitches were made by lower-level staffers who were working for Renna and Kelly -- the same employees whose job was to serve as a conduit with the administration for essential state services, like recovery funds for Superstorm Sandy. Sokolich was one of the mayors on that list; he rebuffed the request early last year.
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop also said that was ignored by the Christie administration after he declined to endorse the governor, with a string of canceled meetings with cabinet officials.
But the freeze-out with Sokolich notwithstanding, Renna insisted that Christie's office did not retaliate against mayors who weren't on the campaign team.
"That didn’t change what our day-to-day job was, reaching out to Democrats and Republicans alike," Renna said.
In August, Renna said she had to field angry emails from Kelly after one of her staffers set up a meeting with Sokolich without permission. She told the employee "for his protection" to quit talking to Sokolich.
Renna said she never followed up with Kelly to find out what the problem was, saying she didn't want to rile Kelly by overstepping her boundaries.
She described Kelly, a single mother of four, as volatile and "overwhelmed" with daily life.
"Bridget can be a very good manager sometimes and she could be very difficult sometimes," Renna said. "It varies from day to day so you just rolled with the punches and did the job."
After the lane closures blew up, 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.
Renna was due to return for more testimony Tuesday. Four other witnesses have been called to appear, including Michael Drewniak, Christie's press secretary, and Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridges.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times