A former New Jersey Port Authority official and appointee of Gov. Chris Christie, implicated in the political scandal over the deliberate lane closures onto the busy George Washington Bridge, refused to answer questions about the episode before a state Assembly panel on Thursday.
David Wildstein took the 5th Amendment and refused to answer questions, prompting lawmakers to vote to find him in contempt of the committee, a charge that will be referred to a county prosecutor.
Wildstein, who was the director of interstate capital projects for the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, resigned in December, saying the bridge issue had become a distraction. He and Christie are from the same town and attended the same high school, one year apart.
His appearance before the panel came immediately after a nearly two-hour news conference in which Christie repeatedly apologized for the bridge scandal, saying “I am a very sad person today.” He attempted to create some distance between himself and Wildstein, telling reporters that he did not know Wildstein in high school.
Christie, a Republican party leader, said he was “embarrassed and humiliated” by emails showing that top staff members ordered traffic-snarling lane closures on the approach to the bridge in an act of political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who did not support Christie’s gubernatorial election.
Christie fired Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff who apparently engineered the closures and who said in emails: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Christie said she lied to him about the issue.
Assembly Deputy Speaker John Wisniewski, a Democrat, and chair of the Assembly transportation committee said in a statement that "Wildstein's performance before the committee today was perplexing and disappointing.... It makes one wonder what exactly he doesn't want to discuss, and it raised more questions about what happened."
Wildstein’s lawyer, Alan Zegas, had challenged the legal authority of the Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee to subpoena Wildstein. But a judge found earlier Thursday that it had the authority.
During the hearing, Wildstein answered questions about the spelling of his name and his place of residence, but when committee Chairman John Wisniewski asked, “Most recently, where were you employed?” he responded, “On the advice of my counsel, I respectfully assert my right to remain silent under the United States and New Jersey Constitutions.”
Zegas informed the committee that he did not want his client to answer questions because those answers could be used by prosecutors if Wildstein is later charged with a crime. Wisniewski advised Zegas that it was illegal for him to refuse to answer the committee’s questions. Zegas, however, disagreed.
What followed was a lengthy hearing that consisted mostly of Assembly members asking Wildstein questions, sometimes reading from the emails, and Wildstein – or his attorney – responding that he would take the 5th. At one point, Wisniewski, asking about redactions in the pages of emails, said, “So you wont even tell me if there’s redaction on that page?”
Assemblyman Thomas Giblin, a Democrat who has long known Wildstein, urged him to come forward, even if that means implicating others.
“What I would suggest is don’t let David Wildstein be a fall guy on some of these issues that have popped up in recent months,” he said.
Wildstein’s lawyer suggested that if the committee wanted more answers to the questions, it should persuade law enforcement in New York and New Jersey to give his client immunity. The U.S. attorney in New Jersey opened an inquiry on the lane closures Thursday.
During the news conference, Christie promised to continue to investigate the lane closures and to look into whether any other members of his senior staff were involved.
He said he would have meetings with his senior staff to “determine if there’s any other information that I do not know or need to know in order to take appropriate action.”
“If there is additional information that needs to be disclosed, I will do so, if there’s additional actions that need to be taken with my senior staff, I will do so,” he said.
Christie traveled to Fort Lee on Thursday afternoon to offer more apologies for the incident that caused massive traffic jams in the city.