By John Celock
New Jersey lawmakers spent Monday grilling Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) chief of staff over allegations of political retribution regarding the closure of roads entering the George Washington Bridge last year.
Kevin O’Dowd, Christie’s top aide, used his opening statement to say that he was not involved in the decision to close the lanes, which caused traffic back-ups in Fort Lee. Lawmakers spent much of the all-day hearing to question O’Dowd on the internal investigation he conducted into the lane closures and the reaction of Christie and his inner circle.
Lawmakers zeroed in on a conversation O’Dowd and Christie had on Dec. 11 at the governor’s mansion in Princeton, where Christie asked O’Dowd to look into reports that the lanes were closed because Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich (D) refused to back Christie’s 2013 reelection campaign.
“The governor said something like ‘this bridge issue is still out there. This talk about politics and retribution is a major distraction,’” O’Dowd told lawmakers. “I need you to talk to Bridget Kelly and find out if she knew anything.”
Kelly, who was Christie’s deputy chief of staff for intergovernmental affairs, has been implicated by a Christie authorized report into the lane closures as having worked with Port Authority official David Wildstein to close the lanes. Kelly and Wildstein have not testified before the committee. In addition, Bill Stepien, Christie’s 2013 campaign manager and Kelly’s former boyfriend, has been implicated as being involved.
Stepien and his attorney attended the hearing, sitting in the back of the room. Stepien could be seen behind O’Dowd in televised shots of the chief of staff during the hearing.
Under questioning from the legislative committee, O’Dowd said he did not ask Christie why the political retribution reports were a “major distraction” and the governor did not specify. O’Dowd said he did not know why Christie specifically asked about Kelly’s involvement, but noted that since Kelly oversaw relationships with local government officials, it would be likely she would have some knowledge.
O’Dowd said that when he talked to Kelly by phone she denied any involvement and he suggested she review her emails and text messages in case there were any messages with relation to the lane closures. O’Dowd said Kelly asked why Christie wanted to know.
“Bridget I need to ask you about the lane closures,” O’Dowd said he started the conversation with Kelly. “She said something ‘sure what about. Did you have anything to do with closing the lanes at George Washington Bridge?’ She responded with ‘absolutely not why are you asking me that.’”
O’Dowd said that Kelly then asked him “does he think I did,” with relation to Christie. He then said that Kelly again said “absolutely not” with regard to any involvement in the lane closure. The rest of the conversation involved Kelly’s daughter’s surgery, O’Dowd’s recent family vacation to Florida and a routine request from a state legislator, according to the chief of staff.
Emails from Kelly to Wildstein regarding the lane closure surfaced in January and Kelly was dismissed from her post in the governor’s office.
Lawmakers questioned O’Dowd’s internal investigation techniques, including why he chose not to take notes during his meetings with Kelly and other top gubernatorial staffers. He said he trusted Kelly and others and did not take notes. Prior to joining the governor’s office as deputy chief counsel in 2010, O’Dowd had been an assistant U.S. Attorney, where he oversaw securities and health care prosecutions. Earlier in his career, he was a deputy state attorney general and an assistant counsel to former Govs. Christine Todd Whitman (R) and Donald DiFrancesco (R). He has been chief of staff since January 2012.
Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair) questioned O’Dowd’s failure to take notes, suggesting that he may have been trying to not create a record, which O’Dowd denied. Gill noted that O’Dowd was honored by various groups for his work as a prosecutor and noted that when Christie announced his intention to nominate O’Dowd for state attorney general in December, he described O’Dowd as “loyal and smart.” Gill said she agreed with that characterization of O’Dowd.
O’Dowd’s nomination for attorney general has been put on hold due to the lane closure investigation. His planned successor as chief of staff, Regina Egea, remains in her current post running Christie’s authorities unit.
Lawmakers also asked O’Dowd regarding his meeting on Dec. 12 with former Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni. Baroni, who was Wildstein’s supervisor, had testified to the state Legislature that the lane closures were part of a traffic study being conducted by the Port Authority. O’Dowd said the meeting was to inform Baroni that his last day at the transportation agency would be on Dec. 13. He said that then Port Authority Chairman David Samson had indicated he wanted Baroni to leave the agency due to “performance based issues.”
“David Samson had expressed concern that he was being pulled into day to day matters that Bill Baroni could have handled,” O’Dowd said.
O’Dowd also said that when he questioned Baroni about his testimony about a traffic study, Baroni said that it was a traffic study and that he did not mislead lawmakers. O’Dowd said that Baroni reminded him that he was a former state senator and constitutional law professor. O’Dowd also noted that discussions about Baroni’s successor occurred before Baroni was informed about Dec. 13 being his last day.
O’Dowd also distanced himself from characterizations of Kelly as “overly emotional” and “imbalanced” that had been described in a report Christie authorized into the lane closures. Under questioning from Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), O’Dowd said that the Kelly described in the report is not the Kelly he had dealt with.
“The Bridget Kelly that I knew was honest, forthright and had been in this building for 20 years,” O’Dowd said. “Those are not characterizations I adopt and it was not the Bridget Kelly I dealt with on the 12th and 13th.”