By John Celock
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) announced the resignation of the Port Authority chairman and reiterated that he was not involved in the Bridgegate plan during a press conference Friday afternoon.
Christie denied that Samson’s resignation had anything to do with Bridgegate or allegations that he steered Port Authority business to clients of his private law firm. The announcement about Samson came during an over hour long press conference Friday centered on the Bridgegate report released this week by a taxpayer funded attorney hired by the governor’s office. The press conference was Christie’s first since a marathon two-hour session with reporters dedicated to the bridge controversy.
Christie took steps to defend Samson’s tenure at the Port Authority and noted that he believes the former state attorney general’s statements. Emails released earlier showed that Samson was copied on issues relating to last year’s lane closures at the George Washington Bridge.
“I spoke to General Samson on January 8 and asked him what he knew about this and had any idea of the planning of it. He said he did not,” Christie said of Samson and Bridgegate. “That rang true to me at the time because of David’s reputation for honesty. The role of the chairman of the Port Authority is not an operational one.”
Christie defended Samson’s private law practice while serving at the Port Authority. He noted that Port Authority board members are not paid and need to earn a living outside of their work at the agency.
Christie said that he and Samson had first discussed his resignation last year but that Christie asked him to stay on until after the 2013 gubernatorial election to provide for a transition. He said that the timing of Samson’s resignation now is centered primarily on the need to provide new leadership at the Port Authority in the wake of the governor’s office report, which was conducted by former New York City Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro and his law firm.
During the press conference, Christie reiterated previous statements and the Mastro report’s conclusion that the only staffer in the governor’s office to know about the Bridgegate lane closures was former deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, who Christie fired in January. Kelly had sent an email to then Port Authority senior staffer David Wildstein last year saying “it was time for some traffic in Fort Lee.” The decision to close the lanes came as Christie had not been endorsed by Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor in his reelection campaign.
Christie said that the conduct of Kelly and Wildstein “mystifies me at every level” and said that people may not know exactly what happened with the bridge lane closures. He noted that he did not meet with Kelly privately in the wake of the January email revelations because he did not believe she would tell the truth and that he did not want to be seen as interfering with any investigations.
The lane closures are now being investigated by a state legislative committee and the U.S. attorney’s office.
The governor brushed off concerns that the investigation would hamper a potential 2016 presidential bid. He said that he has not made a final decision on such a bid and would consult with his family before the decision. He said that he tours the country in his role as Republican Governors Association chairman, he doesn’t hear that much interest in the bridge as he does in New Jersey.
In response to a question, Christie said that he believes Mastro’s report focuses on Kelly and Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s (D) emotional states because they had that information. He said they would likely not have had information on the emotional states of key male figures in the investigation including former Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien and former Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni.
“I would assume they didn’t get test or have documented evidence that would give a window into emotional side of those folks,” Christie said.
Zimmer has accused Christie of having Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R) threaten to withhold funding for Hurricane Sandy relief unless she approved a development project Christie favored. The Bridgegate report does not agree with Zimmer’s allegations. Zimmer did not cooperate with Mastro or provide him with copies of her notes on the subject.
Christie also noted that he wants to reexamine the structure of the bistate agency, which was cited in the report. The Port Authority is governed by a board consisting of appointees from the governors of New York and New Jersey, with New Jersey picking the board chairman and New York the executive director, who runs day-to-day operations. Since the administration of former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) in the 1990s, New Jersey appoints a deputy executive director who shares operational control with the New York appointee.
Christie said he wants to talk to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) about a possible restructuring, including granting more control to each state over port operations in their state. He said that the Port Authority has long had feuding between the two states.
Christie also defended the $1 million cost to taxpayers of the investigation. While he said he did not know the exact figure, he said the cost is needed to provide information. Christie acknowledged that he did not know how the state would actually pay Mastro and his law firm, but said the money would likely come from the state Department of Law and Public Safety.
“If we want to have a search for the truth and have investigations that are asking for the production for enormous amounts of documents and testimony you need lawyers,” Christie said. “That means they get paid.”