Ex-official: Christie knew about lane closings

New York TimesNews ServiceFebruary 1, 2014 

Christie-Traffic Jams

David Wildstein speaks Jan. 9 during a hearing at the Statehouse in Trenton. ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

MEL EVANS — AP

The former Port Authority official who personally oversaw the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, central to the scandal now swirling around Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said Friday that "evidence exists" the governor knew about the lane closings when they were happening.

In a letter released by his lawyer, the former official, David Wildstein, a high school friend of Christie's who was appointed with the governor's blessing at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the bridge, described the order to close 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 specifically 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."

The letter does not specify what the evidence was. Nonetheless, it is the first signal that Christie, a Republican, may have been aware of the closings, and marks a striking break with a previous ally.

The letter, sent from Wildstein's lawyer, Alan Zegas, is to the Port Authority's general counsel, contesting the agency's decision over the legal fees. But it is clearly meant as a threat to the governor. Indeed, the allegations make up just one paragraph in a two-page letter that otherwise focuses on Wildstein's demand that his legal fees be paid and that he be indemnified.

Zegas did not respond to requests to discuss the letter, which also consisted of a strong defense of Wildstein against negative comments Christie made about him during the news conference.

"Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some," the letter added.

The bridge scandal erupted in early January, when documents emerged revealing that a deputy chief of staff to the governor, Bridget Anne Kelly, had sent an email to Wildstein saying, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," the town at the New Jersey end of the bridge, where Christie's aides had pursued but failed to receive an endorsement from the mayor, who is a Democrat. The letter does not delve into the motives behind the lane closings.

A spokesman for Christie did not immediately return a call seeking comment Friday.

Christie has steadfastly denied that he knew before January that anyone in his administration had been responsible for the lane closings, and his administration has tried to portray it as the actions of a rogue staff member.

The governor fired Kelly. Wildstein communicated the order to close the lanes to bridge operators. He resigned from his position as the director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority in early December, saying the scandal over the lane closings in September had become "a distraction." In a statement that documents show was personally approved by the governor, the administration praised him as "a tireless advocate for New Jersey's interests at the Port Authority."

The Port Authority has since refused to pay his legal costs associated with inquiries by the New Jersey Legislature and U.S. attorney into the lane closings.

In his two-hour news conference, Christie said his friendship with Wildstein had been overstated; that while the governor had been class president and an athlete, he did not recall Wildstein well from that period and had rarely seen him in recent months.

The Wall Street Journal has since published photos showing the two men laughing together at a Sept. 11 anniversary event -- which happened during the four days the lanes were closed. A high school baseball coach also recalled them as friends in high school.

The Legislature has sent subpoenas to Wildstein and 17 other people as well as the governor's campaign and administration seeking information about the lane closings. That information is due back Monday.

Kelly's email was revealed in documents Wildstein submitted in response to an earlier subpoena from the Legislature.

But those documents were heavily redacted, leaving clues but no answers as to whom else might have been involved in the lane closings. Some of the documents, for example, showed texts between Wildstein and Kelly trying to set up a meeting with the governor around the time the plan for the lane closings was hatched. But it is unclear what the meeting was about.

Other texts show Wildstein and Christie's top appointee at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, disparaging the mayor of Fort Lee during the lane closings, and discussing how to respond to the mayor's complaints and inquiries from reporters. Those texts, too, are heavily redacted, but indicate that the two men were in contact with the governor's office at the time.

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