The New Jersey legislative panel investigating the Bridge-gate scandal has stepped up its efforts this week, probing more deeply the intermingled mix of politics and governance in the administration of Gov. Chris Christie.
And for the first time since the scandal broke, a member of the governor’s staff has finally given a sworn, first-hand account of the inner workings of an administration still reeling from revelations that it used traffic-snarling lane closures in a political-payback scheme.
In a five-hour grilling Tuesday before the legislative committee, Christina Renna, the former director of outreach at the governor’s now-defunct Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, described an administration in which the line between politics and governance often remained a murky affair, saying she feared for her job if she raised questions about the scandal starting to unfold around her last year.
The committee’s investigation continued to heat up Wednesday as it subpoenaed documents from Michael DuHaime, a chief strategist for Governor Christie’s gubernatorial campaigns who is considered one of his closest political advisers in his ongoing maneuvering for a presidential run.
"The subpoena is part of the committee's continued, bipartisan investigation into the lane closings and apparent abuse of government power," the New Jersey legislative panel said in a statement Wednesday. Mr. DuHaime’s attorney said his client would cooperate, but questioned the political motives of Democratic lawmakers in charge of the investigative committee.
Tuesday’s testimony by Ms. Renna, the first witness to testify before the panel in weeks, cast doubt on one of Christie’s key assertions: that the lane closures were planned and carried out by rogue members within his staff, especially Bridget Kelly, Ms. Renna’s supervisor and onetime friend and one of Christie’s closest aides, who was fired immediately after the scandal broke. Ms. Kelly’s e-mail, “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” has become a keystone phrase in the Bridge-gate scandal.
“I wouldn't say she was the architect, but she was instrumental in the process,” Renna testified, adding that she herself “had no knowledge or involvement” in the plan. She resigned her position in February.
But she also testified that Kelly was not “a decision maker” in the office, and that as she worked closely with the governor, “she was constantly checking before she made a decision.”
In March, a law firm hired by Christie released a 344-page report that placed most of the blame on Kelly and David Wildstein, the Christie ally at the Port Authority who planned and carried out the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, without informing local officials beforehand or even giving a heads up to the bi-state transportation authority’s executive director.
Christie has categorically denied any knowledge of the lane closure plans beforehand. Mr. Wildstein and Kelly have yet to explain their actions publicly, invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
“But Christie has been known as a very strong leader who, at least in the past, doesn’t tolerate a lot of movement behind his back,” says Jeanne Zaino, professor of political campaign management at the New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies. “His suggestion since Bridge-gate erupted that this was happening during his watch, and that he’s sorry for it, and that he didn’t realize it was happening, becomes harder to believe when you listen to [Renna].”
But Renna was also the receiver of another infamous Kelly e-mail. On Sept. 12, it was Renna who e-mailed Kelly and told her that the office had received a call from Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who complained that the traffic jams were so severe that emergency first-responders could not get through, and that he suspected the lane closures were politically motivated.
“Good,” Kelly e-mailed back.
Exactly 3 months later, as the scandal began to erupt, Kelly called Renna and asked her to delete this response. The younger aide thought the request was “strange” and “inappropriate,” but she didn’t report it to anyone in the administration – though she did keep a copy of the e-mail.
“I thought I would lose my job,” Renna testified. “I was fearful of getting [Kelly] caught up in something that I didn’t know if she was involved in or not.… She was my boss. She was senior staff.”
The young staffer’s testimony Tuesday only buttressed the central importance of the information both Kelly and Wildstein have about the lane closures. Nearly all of Christie’s former inner circle has fallen away from the administration as the US Attorney continues to probe the scandal and Christie’s possible role.
Still, finding criminal conduct may prove difficult for many reasons. In 2010, the Supreme Court greatly curtailed the ability of federal prosecutors to convict public officials of corruption, raising the criminal standard for these cases to crimes that result in a tangible personal gain, like bribery. Some legal experts remain skeptical that, despite the ugly nature of the political payback scheme, the lane closures constituted any federal crime.
But like most fill-in-the-blank-gates, the problem remains that of a possible coverup, or the fibs that arise when the “what did you know and when did you know it” questions inevitably come.
“This issue of the e-mail destruction, could [Kelly] be brought up on charges of tampering with evidence?” asks Professor Zaino. “And then could they use that to try to try to strike a deal with her? There were ways in which I thought that it may allow the committee, or federal prosecutors, to move forward with that if they choose to.”
Renna also described an office that often blurred the line between the governor’s reelection efforts and the daily act of governing the state. The Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, which she called the “IGA,” was a busy place in which a host of mayors and community officials called to get potholes repaired, graffiti removed, and other issues front-and-center to daily governance. Renna testified the office was “amazingly nonpartisan” and purely interested in “helping local government, regardless of political affiliation.”
Yet she also testified that the staff tracked lists of “Democratic endorsers” as they did their job. And Kelly would often tell the staff to keep “hands off” certain mayors – ignoring those like Mayor Sokolich, who did not endorse the Republican governor.
Renna even told one her subordinates to cut off all communication with Sokolich, per Kelly’s instructions. “Everyone just didn't think this was as severe of an issue until it was," said Renna, who teared up during the hearing. "I understand again in retrospect how that looks.”
Christie shuttered the intergovernmental affairs office last month, following the recommendations of his attorneys.
Yet the entire purpose of this office’s tireless efforts to track Democratic endorsers as they governed the state, say political observers, sprung from his ambition to win a sweeping, bipartisan landslide as a Republican in a solidly Democratic state. This would boost his case for a likely run for president.
“The way in which politics had seeped into this office, that was supposed to be supporting these mayors regardless of endorsements, perhaps isn’t surprising,” says Zaino. “But there seems to [have been] an awful lot of that going on.”