A former aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told lawmakers Tuesday that she had no knowledge of or involvement in the political payback plot at the George Washington Bridge yet described the governor's office as a place where political work was not avoided but rather done during off-hours.
The ex-aide, Christina Renna, testified for more than two hours under oath before a committee investigating politically motivated lane closings that caused gridlock in Fort Lee, the town at the base of the heavily traveled bridge between New Jersey and New York City. She was to continue testifying Tuesday afternoon.
Renna worked under Christie's fired deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly. Kelly appeared to set the lane closings in motion with an email saying, "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
Renna resigned in February, and Christie fired Kelly.
The scandal has become a major distraction for Christie as he contemplates a 2016 White House bid. Separate federal and legislative investigations are continuing.
Renna denied that politics infiltrated the governor's office during Christie's re-election campaign. She said all political work happened after work or on weekends, or when staff took vacation to perform political work. Yet, she said that Kelly's department, the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, kept lists, at least informally, of the mayors who endorsed Christie, or were thinking of doing so. She denied those targets received extra attention from the administration, however.
"The bridge lane closures did not in any way, shape or form exemplify the IGA that I know," Renna said. "For four years, the IGA's focus was good government."
Renna also confirmed the administration's depiction of Kelly as a staff member overwhelmed with her professional responsibilities and parental duties as a single mother of four. She said she often tried to placate Kelly or make her life easier.
Renna testified that Kelly was "insecure," had difficulty making decisions and communicated often with former Christie political operative Bill Stepien.
Christie cut ties with Stepien, who managed his two gubernatorial campaigns, amid the scandal. An internal review commissioned by Christie found the Republican governor had didn't learn of the lane closings until afterward. The report, by New York lawyer Randy Mastro, blamed Kelly and David Wildstein, a former operative at the agency that runs the bridge, for hatching and carrying out the plot.
The Mastro report also found that Stepien knew about the lane closings, but not the motive.
Renna said she too was unaware of the motive, but noted that Kelly had an issue with Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, whose town bore the brunt of the traffic gridlock after he did not endorse Christie.
Renna testified that she kept a copy of an email in which Kelly appears glad that the traffic tie-ups are causing distress to Sokolich, even after Kelly asked her in December to delete the message.
At the time, the legislative inquiry was already underway.