TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s longtime press secretary told state lawmakers Tuesday he’s confident his boss and other senior advisers had no knowledge of the planning or execution of a scheme that shut traffic near the George Washington Bridge as political payback.
Michael Drewniak, Christie’s chief spokesman since he became U.S. attorney for New Jersey in 2001, said in an opening statement before a legislative committee investigating the plot that he was misled into believing the lanes were blocked last September to study traffic patterns, an explanation that has been discredited. He said he 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 Governor Chris Christie — had any involvement whatsoever in this reckless and perplexing episode,” Drewniak said.
Christie, on his monthly radio program Tuesday night, criticized the legislative panel for interviewing two of his aides for hours without learning anything new about the traffic jams manufactured by some of his aides.
Christie said Drewniak didn’t say anything that isn’t contained in a report commissioned by the governor and released in March. He also said former aide Christina Renna didn’t provide any new details when she testified last week.
Democrats have criticized the report as a whitewash of the lane closures, which caused four days of gridlock in Fort Lee, whose mayor didn’t support Christie for re-election. The report concluded that neither Christie nor anyone in his inner circle did anything wrong. It didn’t interview several key players, who refused to cooperate.
Drewniak is the most senior administration official to be questioned under oath about the lane closings, which have become a major distraction as the governor contemplates a 2016 presidential run. Christie has denied knowing about the plot.
The episode is being investigated by state lawmakers trying to determine who gave the order to block the lanes and why and by federal authorities. The scope of their investigation isn’t entirely clear, but Drewniak has testified before a federal grand jury as part of the criminal investigation.
Federal authorities also are 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, citing their rights not to incriminate themselves.
The lawmakers have released reams of documents, including the most damning statement so far, former Christie aide Bridget Kelly’s email 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.
Drewniak was accompanied by a lawyer at the hearing, which lasted seven hours. He 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.
Based on a conversation with Wildstein, Drewniak said, he told the governor’s then-chief counsel in October that Kelly and Christie’s campaign manager may have known that month about the lane closings.
Drewniak also said he had dinner in December with Wildstein, whom he considered a friend, days before Wildstein was forced to resign his job as questions grew about what happened at the foot of the bridge.
But, Drewniak told lawmakers, he did not talk to Christie about it until after the dinner, when he informed the governor of Wildstein’s claim that he had told Christie of the lane closings during a Sept. 11 remembrance event. Christie has said he doesn’t recall any conversation with Wildstein and a discussion about traffic jams would not have registered as unusual.
Drewniak was grilled for two hours by the Christie administration in January, after which the governor decided not to fire him.
Two Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executives are to appear before the panel next month; a Christie campaign aide is set to testify next week.
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