Former Christie Aide ‘Cannot Comprehend’ Bridgegate

By John Celock

A former political aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) told a state legislative committee investigating the Bridgegate controversy Tuesday that he was “dumbfounded and disappointed” over the ordeal but noted he was not involved.

Matt Mowers, who worked for Christie in the governor’s intergovernmental relations office and on his 2013 campaign, told lawmakers that gubernatorial staffers did not work in a political way. He said that he had been instructed not to weigh party politics in dealing with local officials. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich (D) and other Democrats claim that Christie’s office orchestrated the closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge in retaliation for Sokolich not endorsing Christie.

“Like all of you and so many others I’ve seen these stories unfold in various reports. I am disheartened and disappointed in what I have seen in the press,” Mowers said at the beginning of an almost seven hour-long hearing.

Mowers, now the executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party, told lawmakers that he “felt privileged” to work in Christie’s office. He said that he and other aides were told by Christie’s top staff that they were “to serve all of New Jersey constituents without regard to political, economic or social status.”

Mowers said that the bridge closure lanes were conducted by “rogue individuals” and that because of the equality order he does not know why they would do this.

“I cannot comprehend why anyone would commit these acts,” Mowers said.

Mowers’ testimony in is line with other top Christie aides and a taxpayer funded report commissioned by the governor’s office that sets blame for the lane closures with former gubernatorial deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly and former Port Authority official David Wildstein. In addition, Bill Stepien, Christie’s 2013 campaign manager and Kelly’s former boyfriend, has been implicated as playing a role.

Mowers admitted to lawmakers that while with Christie’s campaign he reached out to Sokolich about endorsing Christie but was rebuffed in the spring of 2013. He said that after Sokolich declined he dropped the issue and that he did know of other attempts to win over the Democrat. Over 60 Democrats backed Christie last year instead of Democratic nominee Barbara Buono.

Mowers said that during the campaign he heard from a series of Democrats who entertained thoughts of backing Christie over Buono but feared political reprisal from Democratic leaders, including those tied to state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) in Bergen County, the home of Fort Lee. Weinberg, a frequent Christie sparring partner and unsuccessful 2009 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, is now the co-chairwoman of the Bridgegate Committee.

Under questioning from Weinberg, Mowers explained that he did keep lists of potential budget address guests in a tiered system. He said that this helped figure out top local officials, including Democrats to invite, and others. He compared the system to wedding invitations and that couples could invite a Tier Two guest to replace a Tier One guest who declines.

Mowers also noted that he had “no relationship” with Wildstein and only met him occasionally at events run by the Port Authority.

Republican lawmakers, led by Sen. Kevin O’Toole (D-Cedar Grove) noted they had concern for the 24-year-old Mowers having to come to Trenton for the hearing, along with retaining legal counsel. He said he was worried that Bridgegate would define Mowers’ life.

“When you talk about in your opening statement about how proud you were about working for the state and the governor,” O’Toole said. “Now we’re interviewing you about doing your job in IGA and an employee for a campaign. It strikes me as pretty odd and pretty sad that as a 24-year-old we have to worry if we are ruining your life.”

Weinberg said that she felt badly for Mowers but said that Bridgegate would not define him. She instead laid blame with others for Mowers being there.

“I blame the people who put you in a position to be dealing with mayors in a government office and a campaign where the lines were blurred,” Weinberg said. “I really do feel badly for you. I feel badly for you for the people who put you in this position to have to answer these kinds of questions.”

During his testimony Mowers said that he has answered questions from the committee’s attorneys before coming to Trenton for the hearing and he thought that would be the end. Mowers has also talked to others probing the lane closures.

“To be frank I don’t know why I am here,” he said.