The lane-closure scandal known as Bridge-gate took a significant turn Friday as a former Port Authority official – and one of the central figures in the political-payback scheme – said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) was aware of the lane closures, even as they were happening.
In a letter sent through his attorney, the former official, David Wildstein, who personally ordered the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, said his actions were part of “the Christie administration order.” He also said that “evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference.”
Christie denied any knowledge of the lane closures at this Jan. 9 press conference, saying he was “heartbroken” that his aides lied to him about the scheme.
"I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution, and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here," the governor said at the time.
The letter, sent by Mr. Wildstein’s attorney Alan Zegas and first reported by The New York Times, said the governor’s account of what he knew about the lane closures and when he knew it was false.
“Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some,” the letter says. Mr. Zegas wrote the letter to the Port Authority, asking it to reconsider the agency's refusal in early January to pay the former official’s legal bills.
Christie’s office responded to the insinuations early Friday evening.
“Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer confirms what the Governor has said all along – he had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened and whatever Mr. Wildstein’s motivations were for closing them to begin with,” the statement read. “As the Governor said in a December 13th press conference, he only first learned lanes were closed when it was reported by the press and as he said in his January 9th press conference, had no indication that this was anything other than a traffic study until he read otherwise the morning of January 8th. The Governor denies Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer’s other assertions.”
Wildstein ordered the closures after one of Christie’s closest aides, former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, sent him a text saying, “Time for a traffic jam in Fort Lee.”
“Got it,” Wildstein replied.
The subsequent lane closures on Sept. 9, the first day of school for Fort Lee, produced a four-day traffic nightmare for the borough. The closures were an act of political payback, under the guise of a traffic study, against the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who did not endorse the governor’s reelection bid.
At the time, Christie was attempting to win reelection with a wide bipartisan margin, a key part of his likely candidacy for the Republican nomination for president.
Wildstein and Christie attended high school together, but the governor said at his two-hour news conference that the two were merely acquaintances. Others have disputed this account, saying the two were friends, and The Wall Street Journal published a photo of the men laughing together at a Sept. 11, 2013, memorial service – the third day of traffic jams in Fort Lee.
US Attorney Paul Fishman, Christie’s successor at the District of New Jersey, is conducting a criminal investigation of the closures at the George Washington Bridge. The New Jersey Legislature, too, has issued 20 subpoenas into the matter, including to the governor’s reelection campaign and the New Jersey Republican State Committee.
Wildstein invoked his Fifth Amendment protections before a legislative committee earlier in January.
“The allegations being made by Mr. Wildstein through his attorney lends credence to the skepticism about the Governor's statement,” said Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a chairman of the joint legislative committee investigating the Bridge-gate closures, in a statement. “It validates the line of questioning the committee has chosen to pursue.”
“I am curious (Wildstein) has documents that at a minimum question the governor's veracity,” Mr. Wisniewski continued, “yet he did not provide them to the committee when he was subpoenaed.”