The New Jersey legislative committee investigating the long-running Bridgegate scandal heard its first witness yesterday on the lane closures on the world’s busiest river span, the George Washington Bridge.
You’d be excused for thinking that the various investigations are going nowhere. The inquiries by the US attorney in New Jersey, the US attorney in New York City and the Manhattan district attorney—looking into Bridgegate, possible misuse of state power in distributing and withholding Superstorm Sandy aid and the conflict-of-interest scandal at the Port Authority—are all hush-hush. And the New Jersey joint legislative committee investigation has been frustrated by its inability to get the cooperation of and testimony from key participants, who’ve claimed their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, claims that were so far upheld in the courts.
Yesterday, in a hearing devoted to five hours of testimony from Christina Renna, a former top aide to Governor Christie—all of which were viewed by your Christie Watch reporters—there were no blockbuster revelations about who was responsible for shutting down the lanes. But the hearing did provide a clearer picture of how Christie used the governor’s office to help orchestrate his re-election. And Renna had some interesting observations about the governor’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, who wrote the infamous “time for some traffic problems in Ft. Lee” e-mail that first linked the traffic snarl to the governor’s office and who has been scapegoated by the governor and the lawyers he hired to investigate the issue.
The committee has subpoenaed three more witnesses to testify in upcoming weeks. They include Michael Drewniak, the governor’s press spokesman; Pat Schuber, a commissioner at the Port Authority, which runs the bridge; and Patrick Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority, who was appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. It was Foye who reopened the bridge lanes last September and wrote a memo saying, “I believe this hasty and ill-advised decision violates Federal Law and the laws of both States.”
Renna, who previously headed the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs (IGA) within the governor’s office, reported to Kelly, and Renna’s team was the key interface for local politicians and the governor’s office. The working theory on Bridgegate is that the lanes were closed in retaliation for the refusal by the mayor of Fort Lee to endorse Christie’s re-election effort, and the committee hearing made it clear that IGA was deeply involved in that campaign. (Renna herself strongly denied having anything at all to do with the lane closings.)
At the hearing she tried very carefully to protect both herself and the governor from ties to the scandal. But she did state definitively that someone higher up than Kelly made the decision to close the bridge lanes. When asked if Kelly has orchestrated the closures, Renna, at one time a close personal friend of Kelly as well as someone who worked for her, stated, “I wouldn’t say she was an architect, but she was instrumental.” She refused to speculate on whom Kelly might have been an instrument for.
Renna’s testimony, and e-mails released by the committee, painted a picture of her office as a war room of sorts for the governor’s re-election. Staff tracked key mayors, spent time learning what issues were important to them, what the mayors wanted to accomplish in their towns and problems that needed to be resolved.
While Renna insisted that campaign work was done after hours and not on the state government payroll (which would have been illegal), it was clear that the line between the two was blurry. Staff in Renna’s office received e-mails and spreadsheets about who was endorsing the governor for re-election and who might be a target for endorsement. Renna said she was instructed by Kelly which mayors to reach out to and which ones to ignore. These she labeled the “hands-off mayors.” (The co-chairman of the legislative committee, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, referred to them as the “do-not-call mayors.”) Through conversations during “the course of the work day,” said Renna, her office knew which mayors not to reach out to. Renna said her staff used a target list of 100 top towns to contact, later expanded to 117 after Hurricane Sandy hit, compiled by Bill Stepien, the governor’s deputy chief of staff and part of his inner circle. Renna professed ignorance about how the list was compiled.
Stepien ran Christie’s campaign in 2009 and left the governor’s office in April 2013 to run his re-election effort. When he did, Kelly, who according to Christie’s lawyers was having an affair with Stepien, took over his job. Stepien was slated to be his top aide at the National Governor’s Association and was appointed in January to head the New Jersey GOP by Christie, but for reasons that are unclear Stepien was ousted days later by the governor when the scandal began to unfold.
Renna told the committee hearing that she wasn’t concerned when staff included information on mayors’ political information in their reports, such as whether or not they had or might endorse the governor for re-election. For example, one memo in June from a staffer warned that the prospect of getting an endorsement from Fort Lee Mayor Sokolich was “bleak.” Two months later a different staffer wrote that Sokolich was “still supportive of administration, but no signs of endorsement.” It was the mayors who would raise the issue, Renna insisted, adding she told staff to then go out with the official for a drink after hours. But one member of the committee, Assembly Majority Leader, Democrat Lou Greenwald, charged that the way the office operated was “an abuse of public trust,” saying that it “crossed the line between good government and good politics.”
Renna also spent some time discussing a late night phone call last December from Bridget Kelly, saying Kelly asked Renna to delete an e-mail exchange between the two from September, while the lane closures were in effect. That e-mail discussed the concerns of Mayor Sokolich about the impact of the closing on his town, and in it Kelly replied with one word when Renna told her that about the problems in Fort Lee: “Good.” To her credit, Renna didn’t delete the e-mail.
After the hearing Kelly’s lawyer added to the drama about the e-mail. He told the Bergen Record that Renna’s account was not true, that Kelly did not ask her to delete the e-mail:
“We’re saying we did not tell her to delete it, and the circumstances support our position,” said Michael Critchley, Kelly’s attorney, in an interview Tuesday afternoon.… “But rest assured: Under cross examination, her account in many respects will be seen as ridiculous,” Critchley said. “And if she thinks she can rewrite history, she does so at her own peril.”