This was the weekend when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was meant to revel in the Super Bowl, being played Sunday in East Rutherford, N.J.
He’ll be there, but the clash of the football titans may not be enough to distract him from his political and perhaps legal troubles. Already under fire for a political dirty trick causing a massive traffic jam, Gov. Christie has just been hit by another load of bad news.
David Wildstein, the former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official who personally ordered the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, says Christie knew about the closure at the time – which contradicts Christie’s statement that he knew nothing about the order to close the lanes as political retribution aimed at the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, only learning about it in the press.
“I first found out about it after it was over,” Christie said at his Dec. 13 press conference.
Further suggesting more to the story than official pronouncements, Bill Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager, is invoking the Fifth Amendment to avoid producing documents and other items of interest under a subpoena by the New Jersey State Legislature committee investigating the incident.
The reason, according to a letter sent by Mr. Stepien’s legal team: “The very real possibility that his act of producing documents and things responsive to the subpoena might compel him to furnish a link in the chain of evidence that could be used to ensnare him in the ambiguous circumstances of a criminal prosecution and thus force him to become a witness against himself, in violation of his fundamental right against self-incrimination…”
Meanwhile, Christie's reelection campaign is seeking permission to use remaining funds – as well as raise additional money – to pay the legal bills arising from its cooperation with state and federal investigations.
“Without approval from the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, the Christie for Governor campaign will run out of money and be unable to comply with subpoenas to turn over documents sought by the U.S. Attorney and the joint legislative panel investigating the matter, according to a letter Thursday from the campaign's attorney, Mark Sheridan,” reports the Star-Ledger newspaper in Newark.
Without commission approval, the campaign "will find itself without the means necessary to respond to the subpoenas and will arguably face contempt charges," writes Mr. Sheridan. The campaign has only $126,608 left after spending $12.1 million to get Christie reelected, but only $12,905 of that cash is permitted under state election laws to be used for "reasonable fees and expenses of legal representation,” according to the Star-Ledger.
Nothing in the latest revelations or legal maneuverings confirms the presence of smoking-gun proof that Christie knew of his aide’s political shenanigans at the time (September 2013), let alone that he ordered them.
Still, Princeton University history professor Julian Zelizer tells Reuters, "It's the first time a high-level official has contradicted the governor.”
“Evidence exists … 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 he gave immediately before Mr. Wildstein was scheduled to appear before the [state] Transportation Committee,” a letter from Wildstein’s lawyer to the Port Authority says. “Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the Governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some.”
Among those statements by Christie is this one: "It was certainly well after the whole thing was over before I heard about it.”
The Star-Ledger, which endorsed Christie in his 2013 reelection bid, posted a hard-hitting editorial about the scandal. Even if Christie was not responsible for the lane closure, which caused massive delays for commuters, school buses, and commercial and emergency vehicles, it means his administration in “dangerously out of control.”
“If [Wildstein’s] charge proves true, then the governor must resign or be impeached. Because that would leave him so drained of credibility that he could not possibly govern effectively,” the editorial states. “This is a shocking development. Christie is now damaged goods. If Wildstein's disclosures are as powerful as he claims, the governor must go.”
No matter how things turn out, the newspaper says, Christie should step down as head of the Republican Governors Association.
Writing for Politico.com, Elizabeth Titus and Maggie Haberman put the situation this way: “Even the best-case scenario for Chris Christie isn’t pretty: It could take weeks or months to sort out new allegations that he knew more about a growing New Jersey traffic scandal than he has let on, casting an even larger pall over a man thought a few weeks ago to have a decent shot at becoming the next president.”
All of which comes down to the essential Watergate question asked 40 years ago, one which toppled a president: “What did he know and when did he know it?”