New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has seen the splashy Bridge-gate headlines recede in the past few weeks, even though his administration is still beset by a number of unfinished high-profile probes into the lane-closure scandal, with key witnesses yet to testify.
And Governor Christie has been turning his attention more and more to the normal nitty-gritty of governing his state, where he is embroiled in budget battles, including his plan to balance a shortfall by diverting $2.43 billion meant for public workers’ pensions, and facing critics for his record on civil rights.
At the same time, Christie has been wildly successful this year raising funds for other candidates – essential political capital for any presidential aspirant – raking in a record $50 million-plus during his first six months as chair of the Republican Governors Association. This doubled the previous record of $25 million, set by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) in 2010.
On Monday, Christie's chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, became the highest-ranking administration official to testify before a special state legislative committee investigating the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge – a widely presumed dirty trick that has rocked the governor’s national political aspirations.
Mr. O'Dowd's testimony could be a crucial moment for the legislative panel, experts believe – as well as for O’Dowd himself, whom Christie had nominated to become New Jersey’s next attorney general last year. Republicans and even some Democrats have begun to call for the special committee to wrap things up, and O’Dowd’s testimony could either inject new momentum into the investigation or simply repeat the Christie administration's account, with little new information gained.
“It's going to be long,” promised Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the Democrat co-chair of the panel, about O’Dowd’s testimony. “We want to know what he knew and when he knew it.”
During his Monday morning testimony, however, O’Dowd carefully maintained the administration’s long-held position that two rogue officials – Bridget Kelly, his deputy, and David Wildstein, a Port Authority official and Christie appointee – acted alone when ordering the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge. Ms. Kelly’s early September e-mail to Mr. Wildstein, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," has become the tagline for the Bridge-gate controversy.
In March, an internal investigation conducted by Christie’s team of attorneys also concluded that Kelly and Wildstein acted alone when they orchestrated a “traffic study," ostensibly as political retribution against Mark Sokolich, the Fort Lee mayor, a Democrat, who decided against publicly supporting the bipartisan coalition that swept Christie to a landslide reelection victory.
“[The governor] said to me, something to the effect of, this bridge issue is still out there, the noise on political retribution is still out there, this is a major distraction,” O’Dowd testified about a Dec. 12 conversation, supporting the governor's contention that he knew nothing of the actions of his rogue staffers. “I need you to talk to Bridget Kelly and ask her whether or not she had anything to do with closing the lanes at the bridge.”
Kelly told him absolutely not in a December conversation, O’Dowd testified, adding that he believed her. “Bridget Kelly is someone I had worked with and known for four years, someone I thought very highly of, hard working, energetic, loyal, someone who I believed and trusted.” Christie fired her in January, after he said that Kelly admitted to him that she was indeed involved.
As one of the few close aides left standing around Christie, O’Dowd’s nomination to become attorney general expired, and he remained at the governor’s side.
Yet even as the legislative panel is under increasing pressure to end its probe, US Attorney Paul Fishman is still conducting his own quiet criminal investigation in the the scandal, and a special grand jury is still hearing testimony from key witnesses.
Last week, the legislative panel was supposed to hear from Patrick Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority, the multistate transportation agency that runs the George Washington Bridge. Last year, Mr. Foye said he believed the lane closures had broken “federal law and the laws of both states” – New Jersey and New York – chastising New Jersey Port Authority officials who have since been forced to resign.
Mr. Fishman asked that Foye’s testimony be delayed as the Port Authority chief gave grand jury testimony. His appearance before New Jersey legislators is expected no sooner than the end of June.
But in addition to these Bridge-gate probes, the Manhattan district attorney and the federal Securities and Exchange Commission are also conducting another Port Authority-related investigation, looking into the possible illegal diversion of $1.8 billion in Port Authority funds to fix a New Jersey bridge outside the agency’s jurisdiction.
That means any one of these four investigations could reignite scandal-related headlines, observers say.
Still, today’s appearance by Christie’s articulate chief of staff O’Dowd could help deflate the most visible probe by New Jersey’s Democratic lawmakers.
“He can make the committee look like it's just digging in the mud,” said Patrick Murray, executive director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, to The Wall Street Journal.