In this Sept. 12, 2013, photo Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly, right, stands with Gov. Chris Christie, left, during the massive boardwalk fire in Seaside Heights.
For David Wildstein, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's political appointment at the Port Authority who orchestrated the George Washington Bridge lane closures, last week's letter from his lawyer Alan Zegas to Port Authority officials in which Wildstein essentially called Gov. Chris Christie a liar was the logical next step in Wildstein's open audition to testify before lawmakers and law enforcers as the "John Dean" of the Bridgegate scandal.
In his latest pitch to federal and state investigators to have Wildstein testify in exchange for immunity, Zegas wrote that "evidence exists . . .tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the Governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference he gave immediately before Mr. Wildstein was scheduled to appear before the (N.J. Assembly) Transportation Committee." It was at this hearing that Wildstein repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment. "Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the Governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some."
Wildstein's charges go straight to the core questions of "what did the governor know, and when did he know it?" and prompted both Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and the Star-Ledger editorial board to suggest that Christie would have to resign or face impeachment if they were proven true.
The direct attack on Christie's integrity on the weekend New Jersey hosted the Super Bowl could renew the pressure on the governor to step down as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. It also is likely to send the popularity ratings of the onetime Republican presidential frontrunner plummeting further in both the state and national polls.
The Wildstein allegations come as the governor's office, his campaign, and 18 current or former Christie administration officials face today's deadline to turn over documents, emails, texts, and other information subpoenaed by the Joint Legislative Committee on Investigations. Bill Stepien, Christie's former campaign manager, announced last week that he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and a Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure to refuse to cooperate with the committee. Christie administration officials declined to comment on whether others planned to similarly refuse.
For Christie, who has not held a press conference for 23 days in the face of an ever-growing list of political scandals, it is a public relations nightmare.
Colin Reed, Christie's press spokesman, issued a statement on Friday that tried to put a positive spin on Wildstein's charge, asserting that "Mr. Wildstein's lawyer confirms what the Governor has said all along -- he had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened and whatever Mr. Wildstein's motivations were for closing them to begin with."
"As the Governor said in a December 13th press conference, he only first learned lanes were closed when it was reported by the press and as he said in his January 9th press conference, had no indication that this was anything other than a traffic study until he read otherwise the morning of January 8th. The Governor denies Mr. Wildstein's lawyer's other assertions."
However, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), co-chair of the legislative inquiry, characterized Wildstein's charges as "serious accusations that add to people's skepticism about what the governor was saying."
It was Wildstein who produced the August 13 email from Bridget Kelly, the governor's deputy chief of staff, telling him it was "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" in response to a December subpoena from Wisniewski's Assembly Transportation Committee that catapulted Bridgegate into a national scandal. While Wisniewski said he was troubled that Wildstein did not produce whatever evidence he had that Christie knew about the lane closures while they were going on, he said the committee's first subpoena might not have been specific enough.
"When we were asking for those documents, we had no idea this would lead into the governor's office," Wisniewski said on MSNBC last week. "We were looking at the Port Authority. These could be somebody else's documents that have come into his possession. We need to see what he has and figure out what Mr. Wildstein is saying here. Clearly his attorney has an obligation to be truthful but we do not know all the information he has and may not be asking all the right questions."
"If he's seeking immunity, he may not tip his hand to everything he has," Wisniewski added.
While Wildstein is clearly seeking to be the first to get immunity, he can probably only testify about Bridgegate and the other Port Authority scandals, as is the case with his boss, Bill Baroni, whom Christie installed as the Port Authority's deputy executive director.
Will Bridget Kelly sing?
With Stepien now signaling his intention to fight the subpoenas, the big prize for investigators is clearly Kelly, a divorced mother with four school-age children who, like Wildstein, could potentially be facing up to three to 10 years in prison on official misconduct charges related to Bridgegate.
Kelly's original lawyer was Walter Timpone, whom Christie had appointed as vice-chairman of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, but she is now represented by Michael Critchley, who has no ties to the Christie administration.
As Christie's deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, it was Kelly who not only sent the incriminating Bridgegate email, but was at the center of the political operation being run out of the governor's office during his reelection campaign in close cooperation with her predecessor, Bill Stepien, who left Kelly in charge when he moved over as campaign manager for Christie's 2013 race.
It was Kelly who set up a special series of meetings with Cabinet-level officials for Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop after his election, then had them cancelled when Fulop refused to endorse Christie. It was Kelly who was the lead contact in the governor's office for the list of Democratic mayors that the campaign was targeting for endorsements to "run up the score," as Christie put it, and prove his electability for the 2016 presidential election.
One of those mayors the campaign contacted was Belleville Mayor Raymond Kimble, whose town got a senior citizen center paid for out of Sandy reconstruction funds even though it suffered little damage from the storm. A second was Harrison Mayor Raymond McDonough, whose town got a new rail station paid for by the Port Authority. And, of course, a third was Fort Lee's Mark Sokolich, whose refusal to endorse Christie is considered the most likely reason for the GWB lane closures.
Sokolich sent his now-famous email asking if he was being "punished" to Kelly and Stepien on September 12, the fourth day of the lane closures -- a sign that Sokolich believed the two were working hand in hand in directing the governor's political machinery and that he saw no distinction or dividing line between the governor's office and the governor's reelection campaign.
In his marathon 108-minute press conference in his Statehouse outer office on January 9, Gov Christie said he was "blindsided" by the disclosure that Kelly had emailed Wildstein that it was "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," and insisted that "this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge." Christie denounced Kelly, whose office door just 40 feet from his podium was now blocked by a double row of TV cameras, as "stupid" and "deceitful," saying he fired her not because she ordered the lane closures, but because she "lied to me."
The governor was just as disparaging of Wildstein.
For Wildstein, a self-professed political history junkie with a keen sense of the parallels between Bridgegate and Watergate, Lesniak's recent open discussion of whether Christie might face impeachment had to be a welcome development in his effort to push for immunity
When Wildstein resigned in early December, it looked as if he might be willing to fall on his sword for his hero Christie -- the star catcher whose hitting exploits he recorded as statistician for the Livingston High School baseball team, the publicity-seeking U.S. Attorney whose high-profile arrests of corrupt politicians he broke in advance from his anonymous perch as PolitickerNJ's "Wally Edge," and the governor who gave a political aspirant who never rose higher than mayor of his hometown the opportunity to play in the big time at a bistate agency with a multibillion-dollar budget.
Wrong End of the Sword
But that was before Christie twisted the sword deep into Wildstein's back during his January 9 press conference, putting Wildstein on the receiving end of the type of biting personal attacks that Christie's well-oiled communications office was quick to post to YouTube when the targets were teachers, reporters, and former Navy SEALs.
While Christie continued to stand up for the integrity of Baroni, the former state senator who played Gov. Jon Corzine in debate prep during his first campaign, he seemed to go out of his way to castigate and belittle Wildstein – a decision that may have made it easier for Wildstein to levy the accusations he did yesterday.
"Let me just clear something up, okay, about my 'childhood friend' David Wildstein," Christie said disparagingly. "It is true that I met David in 1977 in high school. He's a year older than me. David and I were not friends in high school. We were not even acquaintances in high school. I met David on the Tom Kean for governor campaign in 1977. He was a youth volunteer, and so was I. Really, after that time, I completely lost touch with David. We didn't travel in the same circles in high school. You know, I was the class president and athlete. I don't know what David was doing during that period of time," he said of the team statistician who was sitting down the bench from him during baseball games, according to their baseball coach.
Nothing, of course, about how Wildstein promoted Christie's political career from behind the scenes at PolitickerNJ.com. Then the governor put in a further dig at how inconsequential Wildstein was as director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority
"I have had no contact with David Wildstein in a long time, a long time, well before the election," Christie insisted. "You know, I could probably count on one hand the number of conversations I've had with David since he worked at the Port Authority. I did not interact with David."
Except that he did – in fact, the Wall Street Journal obtained photos of Wildstein and Christie talking and laughing animatedly in New York City at the World Trade Center at ceremonies commemorating 9/11 attack this past September. This also happened to be the third day of the George Washington Bridge lane closures.
Other photographs show Christie was with Kelly the next day at the scene of the Seaside Heights boardwalk fire while she is intently studying her cell phone. This would have been about the time that she and Wildstein and Michael Drewniak, the governor's press secretary, were putting together a press release to be issued by the Port Authority explaining away the GWB lane closures as part of a secret traffic study that Wildstein ordered authority officials not to tell the agency's executive director or Fort Lee officials about.
The following morning, on September 13, Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye ordered the lanes reopened, charging in an email that laws might have been broken -- an email that Baroni forwarded to Regina Egea, the director of the authorities unit in the governor's office. Whether Egea forwarded that email up the chain of command is one of the key questions the legislative panel wants to have answered.
Christie said in his December 13 press conference that "the first I ever heard about the issue was when it was reported in the press, which I think was in the aftermath of . . . the leaking of Mr. Foye's email. I think that was the first I heard of it, but it was certainly after the whole thing was over."
In his January 9 press conference, Christie said, "I had no knowledge of this -- of the planning, the execution or anything about it -- and that I first found out about it after it was over. And even then, I was told that it was a traffic study." Christie insisted that for four months, he never dreamed that the lane closures were anything other than the legitimate traffic study that Baroni had claimed.
With various media outlets focusing on Christie's unequivocal statements that he did not know about the lane closures during the week of September 9 to 13 when they occurred, Reed issued a followup press statement last week designed to give Christie an out. Reed quoted an exchange from the January 9 press conference in which Christie suggested he might first have learned about the lane closures from "an earlier story" that preceded the October Wall Street Journal story on Foye's email. Asked if it was The Record's "Road Warrior" column, which appeared the week of the shutdown, Christie said "I don't remember exactly," but "it was something about the traffic, yeah."
At the same press conference, Christie said he fired Stepien, the top political lieutenant he relied upon as his campaign manager in both 2009 and 2013 and as his chief political operative out of the governor's office in the years between, for the "attitude and callous indifference" he showed in two emails after Bridgegate with Wildstein. Just two days earlier, he had praised Stepien and said Stepien would be his choice for state Republican Party chairman.
Stepien's lawyer, Kevin Marino, maintains Stepien's innocence, and argues that one reason the legislative committee should withdraw its subpoena is because Christie's public firing and criticism of Stepien was the sole basis for the subpoena in the first place.
Marino's letter made no mention of the September 12 email to Stepien and Kelly from Fort Lee's mayor protesting the lane closures and suggesting they might be punitive in nature.
"We just received Mr. Marino's letter this afternoon. We are reviewing it and considering our legal options with respect to enforcing the subpoena," Wisniewski and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said in a joint statement issued last week.
"We have read the letter from Mr. Wildstein's attorney and will consider it as our investigation moves forward," they added.
NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.