Gov. Chris Christie's longtime press secretary told New Jersey lawmakers Tuesday that he is confident that his boss and other senior advisers had no advance knowledge of the scheme that shut traffic near the George Washington Bridge in a political payback plot.
Michael Drewniak, who has been Christie's chief spokesman since he became US attorney for New Jersey in 2001, called last September's lane closings reckless and perplexing in an opening statement before a New Jersey legislative committee investigating the plot. He said he was misled into believing the lanes were blocked to study traffic patterns, an explanation that has since been discredited. He said he still has no idea why a government resource was used for political retribution.
"I can say with complete confidence and comfort that none of these people — starting with Gov. Chris Christie — had any involvement whatsoever in this reckless and perplexing episode," he said.
Drewniak, who is part of Christie's inner circle of aides and advisers, is the most senior administration official to be questioned under oath about the lane closings.
The scheme carried out last fall by loyalists to Christie, a Republican, has become a major distraction as the governor contemplates a 2016 presidential run. Christie has denied knowing about the plot.
It is the subject of at least two ongoing investigations. One is by the US attorney's office for New Jersey, and its scope is not entirely clear. Drewniak has testified before a federal grand jury as part of that probe, his lawyer has said. Federal authorities are also looking at whether Christie's administration distributed federal aid for superstorm Sandy recovery in a way that would reward political allies or punish foes.
The joint legislative investigation is being overseen by Democrats and has been dismissed by some Republicans as a politically motivated witch hunt. The lawmakers' inquest has been slowed because two key figures have refused to turn over documents and a third has refused to testify. All have cited their right not to incriminate themselves.
The lawmakers have released reams of documents, including the most damning statement so far, former Christie aide Bridget Kelly's e-mail to David Wildstein, then an official at the transit agency that runs the bridge, saying "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" a few weeks before the lane closures that backed up traffic into that town.
Drewniak was interviewed by lawyers hired by Christie to review the closings. Their report, issued in March and called a whitewash by many Democrats, concluded that neither Christie nor anyone in his inner circle did anything wrong.
Drewniak, who was accompanied by a lawyer, testified that the traffic jams initially seemed to be of minor importance, but escalated through the fall as reporters' inquiries intensified and new details emerged.
Drewniak had a professional and social relationship with Wildstein, and the two had dinner on Dec. 4, shortly before Wildstein was forced to resign his $150,000-a-year job as questions grew about what happened at the foot of the bridge in the fall.
Drewniak said he had only one discussion with the governor about the lane closings, after the dinner with Wildstein. Drewniak testified that he informed Christie of Wildstein's claim that he told the governor of the lane closings during a 9/11 remembrance event. Christie has said he doesn't recall any conversation with Wildstein and says a discussion about traffic jams would not have registered as unusual. Drewniak said Wildstein maintained that the lane closings were part of a traffic study, a claim that has since been discredited.
Drewniak himself was grilled for two hours by the Christie administration in January, after which the governor decided not to fire him.
The legislative panel heard last week from former aide Christina Renna, who worked for Kelly while the lanes were blocked. Ms. Renna described her former boss as erratic and overwhelmed but said she would not have decided to cause traffic jams without orders to do so.
Two port authority executives are to appear before the panel next month; a Christie campaign aide is set to testify next week.