Spokesman testifies Christie was unaware of traffic scheme
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Gov. Chris Christie’s longtime press secretary told New Jersey lawmakers Tuesday that he is confident that his boss had no knowledge of or involvement in the scheme that shut traffic near the George Washington Bridge in a political payback plot.
Michael Drewniak, who has served as a spokesman for Christie since he became U.S. attorney in 2001, called the plot reckless and perplexing in an opening statement before a New Jersey legislative committee that’s investigating last September’s lane closings. Because of his position speaking for the governor, Drewniak is part of Christie’s inner circle of aides and advisers.
The scheme carried out last fall by loyalists to Christie, a Republican, has become a major distraction as he contemplates a 2016 presidential run. Christie has denied knowing about the plot.
It is the subject of at least two ongoing investigations. One is being run by the U.S. attorney’s office for New Jersey, and its scope is not entirely clear. Drewniak has testified before a federal grand jury as part of that probe, his lawyer has said.
The joint legislative investigation is being overseen by Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature. The lawmakers are also looking at whether Christie’s administration distributed federal aid for Superstorm Sandy recovery in a way that would reward political allies or punish foes.
The lawmakers’ inquest, dismissed by some Republicans as a politically motivated witch hunt, has been stymied because two key figures have refused to cooperate at all and a third has refused to testify. All three have cited their right not to incriminate themselves.
But the lawmakers have released reams of documents that have been provided, including the most damning statement so far, when former Christie aide Bridget Kelly sent a note to David Wildstein, then an official at the transit agency that runs the bridge, saying “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” a few weeks before the lane closures last year in that town.
Drewniak also granted three interviews to lawyers hired by Christie to review the closings. Their report, issued in March and called a whitewash by many Democrats, concluded that neither Christie nor anyone in his inner circle did anything wrong.
Drewniak, who was accompanied by a lawyer, testified that the traffic jams initially seemed to be of minor importance, but escalated through the fall as reporters’ inquiries intensified and additional details emerged.
Drewniak said he told Christie’s chief counsel in November about an email from the executive director of the transit agency, who condemned the lane closings as ill-advised and quite possibly illegal. He said he also told the lawyer about Wildstein’s claim that Kelly and campaign manager Bill Stepien knew about the lane closings, but didn’t tell Christie until early December.
Drewniak had a professional and social relationship with Wildstein, and the two had dinner on Dec. 4, shortly before Wildstein was forced to resign his $150,000-a-year job last year as questions grew about what happened at the foot of the bridge in the fall.
Drewniak said he had only one discussion with the governor about the lane closings, after the dinner with Wildstein. Drewniak testified that he informed Christie of Wildstein’s claim that he told the governor of the lane closings during a 9/11 remembrance event. Christie has said he doesn’t recall any conversation with Wildstein and says a discussion about traffic jams would not have registered as unusual. Drewniak said Wildstein maintained that the lane closings were part of a traffic study, a claim that has since been discredited.
Drewniak himself was grilled for two hours by the Christie administration in January, after which the governor decided not to fire him.
The legislative panel heard last week from former aide Christina Renna, who worked for Kelly while the lanes were blocked. Renna described her former boss as erratic and overwhelmed but said she would not have decided to cause traffic jams without orders to do so.
Two others are scheduled to appear before the panel next month.
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