Christie: ‘Nothing New’ in Bridgegate Hearing
Gov. Chris Christie‘s press secretary, Michael Drewniak Tuesday testified how Bridgegate figure David Wildstein confided to him over dinner that the plan for closing lanes at the Fort Lee approach to the George Washington Bridge last September was his idea.
Testifying before the Select Committee on Investigation, Drewniak said Wildstein told him last Dec. 4:
“I created this whole idea for a traffic study. It’s mine, but I let others know about it.’ The others, Wildstein insisted, included Gov. Christie– a claim the governor has strenuously denied.
Drewniak said he related Wildstein’s claim to Christie. “He (Christie) was incredulous and said something to the effect, like a rhetorical remark: ‘What, he tells me something about a traffic study and I’m supposed to know what he’s talking about?’
At the start of his appearance last night on Ask the Governor, Christie said he had watched only a few minutes of the hearing and said everything there is to know about Bridgegate has already been made public by the legal team that conducted his office’s internal review. That review cleared Christie of any advance knowledge or involvement as well.
“The legislature has now had 10, 11 hours of hearings. . . absolutely nothing has come out of this,” the governor said last night.
Drewniak opened his testimony Tuesday by saying he personally had “no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution” of what he called the “strange, unnecessary and idiotic” lane closings.
He told the committee that the first media reports he saw of the resulting traffic jams at the bridge between Sept. 9 and 13 “seemed like a bottom of the barrel issue” at the time, in light of other events, especially the Seaside Heights boardwalk fire.
He said he began to take the matter more seriously later when the Wall Street Journal reported on criticisms of the lane closings by New York Port Authority official Patrick Foye. However, he said others on the governor’s senior staff remained skeptical, despite the news coverage.
“‘It’s not a big story, it’s not a big deal. Nobody’s reading this,’” Drewniak quoted Maria Comella, Christie’s communications director. He said chief counsel Charles McKenna told him: “Look, this is the silly season of politics. There’s bad blood with Foye.”
Drewniak also explained his initial skepticism about media reports that the lane closings might be part of a political retaliation scheme, possibly aimed at Fort Lee Mayor Michael Sokolich.
“From where I sit, that was the most insane thing to even contemplate,” he told the committee. “Shutting down lanes of a bridge for political retaliation against a mayor I’d never even heard of?”
“Do I have regrets now? I have plenty of regrets,” Drewniak said.
In his opening statement to the committee, Drewniak said: “What needs to be said right up front is that I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this strange, unnecessary and idotic episode that brings us here today.”
He added: “Nor did I play any role, knowing role, in any actual or perceived cover-up. “I too would like to know, from those who hatched and carried out his scheme, just what it was they hoped to accomplish. And very simply, why?”
Prior to today’s hearing, the co-chair of the joint legislative panel investigating the Bridgegate scandal said he wants to know what Drewniak knew, when he knew it and what he did with the information.
But Drewniak, beginning with his first words to the committee, established himself as a shocked onlooker, discovering what he called the “conduct, callousness and cavalier attitude” evident in emails about the closings between other key Christie aides “was like nothing I’ve witnessed in my entire working lifetime– and certainly not in this administration.”
According to interview notes from the lawyers hired by Christie to conduct an internal review, somewhere between mid-October and mid-November 2013, former Port Authority official David Wildstein began telling Drewniak that others — namely, Christie’s two-time campaign manager Bill Stepien and former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly — knew about the unannounced access lane closures to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee.
Drewniak told the committee that “now infamous” emails exchanged by Wildstein and Kelly, and made public Jan. 8 “represented a deep betrayal of a personal and professional level” for him in his role as chief spokesperson for the Christie administration.
“The personal betrayal by David Wildstein came from someone I trusted and someone I considered a friend,” Drewniak testified, “and someone who I knew worked very hard and long hours, seemingly and convincingly, with New Jersey’s and the public’s best interests alway in mind.”
On the eve of Tuesday’s session. committee co-chair, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville), said he hoped to learn “what happened to that serious information when it was presented to Mr. Drewniak and others, and who did they share that information with? It’s a head-scratcher that, at least by reading the documents, the timeline doesn’t seem to be a reaction that you would have if you were confronted with serious information.”
The interview notes indicate Drewniak did relay the information to his higher-ups in the Christie administration. The notes also state that after having dinner with Wildstein, Drewniak told the governor about the claims. Wisniewski said he wants to know more about that exchange and about Drewniak’s personal and professional relationship with Wildstein.
In response to questions from Wisniewski Tuesday, Drewniak said his relationship with Wildstein began when Wildstein was running a political website and using the pseudonym “Wally Edge” and Drewniak was a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office. He said he learned Wildstein was “Wally Edge” sometime around March of 2010, “when he became an employee of the Port Authority,” appointed by Christie.
“He called me one day and said, ‘Listen, I’m Wally Edge and my real name is David Wildstein’ and he asked if I would want to meet him for dinner and we did,” Drewniak said. He added: “Like many of us in the state of New Jersey, we were very curious about who this individual was.”
Wisniewski asked Drewniak about the events of Sept. 9, 2013, the first day of lane closings affecting Fort Lee at the George Washington Bridge. The governor’s office of constituent relations began receiving citizen complaints, which continued as the resulting traffic backups worsened through Sept. 13.
Drewniak said he was not then aware of the complaints or emails about them, exchanged by Kelly and Christie aide Christina Renna, who worked in the governor’s office of intergovernmental affairs and reported to Kelly.
Wisniewski also asked Drewniak about a Sept. 12 email forwarded to him by Wildstein, with a report on the GWB traffic jams by John Cichowski, who writes the “Road Warrior” blog for The Record on its website, NorthJersey.com.
However, Drewniak said: “Something about a traffic matter, on just about any location in New Jersey, at least at that stage, is one of the things that I would just flip by.” He said he routinely received “literally hundreds of emails and press clippings . . . throughout the day. . . so it wasn’t something that registered . . . a traffic problem at the GWB? How many traffic problems happen in New Jersey in a day. It seems like –and I don’t mean this with everything we know now– but it seemed at the moment like a bottom of the barrel issue for any attention to be paid.”
Asked about a Sept. 13 email sharply critical of the lane closings, sent by New York Port Authority official Patrick Foye –or of Foye’s order to reopen the lanes– Drewniak said he was not aware of either at the time.
He said he became aware of the developing controversy Sept. 17, when he was asked about it by reporters for the Wall Street Journal. He then emailed Kelly, that he was “coming to chat” about the inquiries. His said his purpose in reaching out to Kelly was to ask: “Can you shed any light on this? Is this an issue I have to deal with?”
“I still did not see this as a major issue, except that now the Wall Street Journal is asking,” Drewniak said. “Subsequently, not long after this, then it became something of a different matter. But at this point, I was just like ‘Do I need to worry about this?’ And that’s how I addressed it to Bridget Kelly.”
Describing Kelly’s response, he said, “She was kind of just back-of-the-hand, dismissive: ‘Oh, it’s nothing, it’s you know. It’s Port Authority stuff.’ And she was just very quick and dismissive. And then told me that she had to run out the door to pick up the kids.”
Wisniewski asked Drewniak whether he thought it odd that “the Wall Street Journal’s calling about a traffic problem?”
“Yes, I did,” Drewniak said. “It seemed, seems kind of minor.”
He said he then contacted Wildstein, who told him for the first time, “‘This is about a traffic study, we’ve conducted a traffic study, no big deal. It’s our prerogative and it’s going to be short-lived or something like that.’. . . It sounded like a very legitimate answer. Again, I have to trust the people who are telling me these things. . . I accepted it as a very rational explanation.”
In his opening statement, Drewniak told the committee, “With all that we have learned since Jan. 8, I now know how badly, regrettably, even naively” he had placed his trust in Wildstein.
Drewniak said he began to take the lane closing matter more seriously when Foye’s objections were reported by the Wall Street Journal. However, he said others on the governor’s senior staff were attributing Foye’s comments to internal Port Authority political jostling between New York and New Jersey appointees.
Describing conversations with chief counsel Charles McKenna and communications director Maria Comella, Drewniak said, McKenna said, “Look, this is the silly season of politics. There’s bad blood with Foye. And they, too, (Christie’s senior staff) were operating on the information that this was a valid traffic study, at least as relayed to them. . .Maria was dismissive: ‘It’s politics, it’s the problems with Foye. . . It’s not a big story, it’s not a big deal. Nobody’s reading this. Don’t worry, it’s a Port Authority problem.”
Asked by Assemb. Paul Moriarty (D-Turnersville), whether he had been “disingenuous” with reporters inquiring about the lane closings by referring them to the Port Authority. Drewniak said, “No, and that’s because this problem, which became and grew more apparent over time, was and remained a Port Authority creation. It wasn’t something that made me happy. It didn’t make any of us happy that they had attracted this much attention to themselves.”
He described his attitude toward the controversy at the time was that it had been “self-created” by the Port Authority and assumed, “based on all the information that they were providing to us, for some period of time, that they were being honest with us.”
“Did you ever ask for the traffic study?” Moriarty asked.
Drewniak replied by referring to former New Jersey Port Authority official Bill Baroni’s legislative testimony on the lane closings last November, saying “the assumption” of Christie’s senior staff was that he (Baroni) had presented some sort of traffic study.” Baroni resigned from the Port Authority in December.
Drewniak was also asked about the Dec. 4 dinner with Wildstein, at which he said he “didn’t have the heart” to tell the Port Authority official he was about to be fired.
“Did you ever lean over to David and say, ‘David, what the hell went on there?’” Moriarty asked.
–”And what was his answer?”
–”He was apologetic for how badly it was handled. Realize it had caused more trouble than, you know, he was regretful about that. And, but his persistence, ending when he pulled out the traffic study. And he . . . complained, as did Mr. Baroni at one time, that they should have nipped this in the bud earlier by doing a press conference or something.”
Drewniak said Wildstein said during the 90-minute dinner, “I created this whole idea for a traffic study. It’s mine, but I let others know about it. He seemed bitter about that (saying) ‘I told people.’”
“He said, “I told the governor about the traffic study” and he said that he had done that on Sept. 11.
Drewniak said he related Wildstein’s claim to Christie the next day.
“He was incredulous and said something to the effect, like a rhetorical remark: ‘What, he tells me something about a traffic study and I’m supposed to know what he’s talking about?’ Words to that effect. I can’t remember exactly.
Before the dinner ended, he said, Wildstein also expressed the hope that even if he left the Port Authority, he could be part of a Christie presidential campaign, if one developed.
Drewniak’s opening statement lauded other colleagues who came with the governor from the U.S Attorney’s Office to the Christie administration, stating: “I can say with complete confidence and comfort that none of these people, starting with Gov. Christie, had any involvement whatsoever in this reckless and perplexing episode.”
The Bridgegate scandal has been hounding Christie for months and some believe it is threatening any chance he may have of running for president in 2016. The governor launched an internal investigation and the team of lawyers he hired produced a report that cleared Christie of any wrongdoing. That report is viewed by many with skepticism.
In September, access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee were closed without prior notice, snarling traffic for four days. Some Democrats believe this was done to punish Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse Christie’s re-election.
On the same day Kelly was fired, Christie cut ties with Stepien after the campaign manager’s involvement in the scandal became clear. The governor had Kelly fired after it became clear she sent the now-infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email, to which Wildstein replied, “Got it.”
Drewniak called the emails, which he said “revealed the true abuse nature” of the lane closing plan, “shocking and disorienting.”
In April, a judge ruled that Kelly and Stepien do not have turn over subpoenaed documents to the SCI. Both successfully argued that doing so would infringe on their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
Kevin McArdle and Fred Tuccillo contributed to this report.