By John Celock
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) top spokesman told state lawmakers Tuesday that the governor was not involved in the decision to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge last year as part of political retaliation.
Gubernatorial press secretary Michael Drewniak told a legislative committee investigating Bridgegate that he was not involved in the planning of the lane closures and neither was the governor. Drewniak did note that he was copied on emails he read several days later and noted that he had dinner with then Port Authority official David Wildstein, who was involved in the planning, in December where Wildstein said top gubernatorial aides were informed about the lane closures, which Wildstein was insisting were part of a traffic study. In January, emails implicated that the lanes were closed to retaliation for the Democratic Fort Lee mayor’s decision not to endorse Christie for reelection.
“I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this strange, idiotic episode,” Drewniak said at the beginning of the marathon hearing.
Drewniak used his opening statement also to note that Christie was not involved in the Bridgegate closures and also made sure to stress that Christie aides who had served with the governor and Drewniak in the U.S. attorney’s office were not involved in “this reckless and perplexing episode.” Drewniak was Christie’s top spokesman in the federal prosecutor’s office and Christie has recruited many top aides who served in the U.S. attorney’s office.
Drewniak’s declaration to say that former federal prosecutors were not involved does not encompass Wildstein, former Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien and former gubernatorial deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, who have been at the center of the lane closure scandal. A taxpayer-funded report commissioned by Christie earlier this year, centered most of the blame on Kelly and Wildstein. In January, an email Kelly had sent to Wildstein, saying it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” surfaced.
Drewniak said that Wildstein told him at a December 2013 dinner meeting that Wildstein said he had told Stepien and Kelly of the traffic study and that he communicated this to the governor. Drewniak did not say that Wildstein indicated that it was part of political retaliation.
Drewniak told lawmakers that he and other top Christie staffers believed Wildstein’s comments that the lanes were closed for a legitimate traffic study and did not believe speculation that the lanes were closed for political retaliation. He said that the governor’s staff had considered the allegations of political retribution from top Democrats to be partisan mudslinging.
The description of political mudslinging led to a slightly awkward moment when Drewniak had to explain the comment to investigative committee co-chairs, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville) and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), who were the earliest legislators suggesting the lanes were closed as part of a retaliation plan.
“I do not mean disrespect to the co-chair,” Drewniak said in response to Weinberg. “There was a belief was that this was being ginned up by two of the most partisan members of the Legislature on the other side of the aisle. That had a role in the coloring and thinking of numerous people until certain information was made available.”
Drewniak was referencing the emails that surfaced in January from Kelly and Wildstein. Weinberg, who was the unsuccessful Democratic lieutenant governor nominee on the 2009 ticket that lost to Christie, told Drewniak there was no disrespect for his comments. Wisniewski spent most of Christie’s first term as state Democratic Party chairman.
Drewniak told lawmakers that Christie’s joke in December 2013 that he moved traffic cones was made based on what he and others believed was Wildstein’s story that the closure was part of a traffic study. He said that during the December dinner meeting with Wildstein, the former Port Authority official showed Drewniak a copy of a traffic study report and noted a consultant was hired. At the dinner, Wildstein expressed concern to Drewniak about his job security. Drewniak said that at the time Christie was planning to replace Wildstein and then Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni, a former GOP state senator, due to their responses to the lane closure controversy.
Democratic committee members spent much time questioning Drewniak about his direct involvement in communicating the developing scandal over the past few months, along with his interactions with Wildstein. Republican lawmakers largely steered towards softer questions about Drewniak’s work and involvement.
The committee plans to meet next week and question Port Authority officials in early June, before taking most of next month off while the state Legislature tackles the state budget.
Drewniak said the revelations regarding the involvement of Kelly and Wildstein has led him to question both of them.
“I don’t know what to believe of David Wildstein or Bridget Kelly in particular,” Drewniak said. “It was one the strangest things I ever witnessed.”