The former Port Authority official who oversaw the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, central to the scandal swirling around New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, said Friday that “evidence exists” that the governor knew about the lane closings when they were happening.
A lawyer for the former official, David Wildstein, wrote a letter describing the move to shut the lanes as “the Christie administration’s order” and said “evidence exists as well 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” three weeks ago.
During his news conference, Christie said he had no knowledge that traffic lanes leading to the bridge had been closed until after they were reopened.
“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,” he said. “And even then, what I was told was that it was a traffic study.”
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The letter, sent as part of a dispute over Wildstein’s legal fees, does not specify what the evidence was. Nonetheless, it marks a striking break with a previous ally. Wildstein was a high-school classmate of Christie’s who was hired with the governor’s blessing at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the bridge.
Christie’s office responded late Friday with a statement that backed away somewhat from the governor’s previous assertions that he had not known about the lane closings until they were reported in the media. Instead, it focused on what the letter did not suggest: that Christie knew of the closings before they occurred.
“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,” the statement said.
The unannounced lane closures caused massive gridlock in Fort Lee in early September, delaying emergency vehicles and school buses and tying up some commuters for hours over four mornings.
New Jersey legislators are investigating whether Christie aides engineered the lane closures to send a message to the town’s Democratic mayor.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office is also investigating. Twenty subpoenas for documents and correspondence related to the lane closings are due to be returned to the legislative panel on Monday.
Christie, a Republican who has been seen as a possible 2016 presidential contender, could be vulnerable because of the scandal. At the very least, it gives opponents something to criticize, and it could tarnish the image he has built as a pragmatic conservative who is willing to work with Democrats on key issues.
He made a brief appearance Friday night at Howard Stern’s 60th birthday party in Manhattan but did not respond to shouted questions from reporters. He has repeatedly said he did not know about the lane closings until they were first reported by The Record, a North Jersey newspaper, on Sept. 13, the day a senior Port Authority official ordered the lanes reopened.
The letter was sent from Wildstein’s lawyer, Alan Zegas of Chatham, N.J., to the Port Authority’s general counsel. It contested the agency’s decision not to pay Wildstein’s legal fees related to the investigations into the lane closures by the U.S. Attorney and the state Legislature.
The claims about Christie make up one long paragraph in a two-page letter that otherwise focuses on Wildstein’s demand that his legal fees be paid and that he be indemnified from any lawsuits.
Wildstein, a former political strategist and one-time author of a popular but anonymous political blog, seemed to be making an aggressive move against the governor at what should have been a celebratory moment for Christie, who had eagerly anticipated the Super Bowl this weekend.
The scandal broke Jan. 8, when documents turned over by Wildstein in response to a previous subpoena from the Legislature revealed that a deputy chief of staff to the governor, Bridget Anne Kelly, had sent an email to him in August saying: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” the town at the New Jersey end of the bridge and where Christie’s aides had pursued but failed to receive an endorsement from the mayor, who is a Democrat.
“Got it,” Wildstein replied.
He then communicated the order to bridge operators. The closings caused extensive gridlock in Fort Lee. Christie fired Kelly the day after those emails were revealed, and his administration has tried to portray the closings as the actions of a rogue staff member.
But documents from Wildstein were heavily redacted, leaving clues but no answers as to who else might have been involved in the lane closings.
Wildstein’s lawyer has promised to turn over full versions of emails to the legislative committee investigating the lane closures, but as of late Friday, a committee spokesman said they had not been received.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.