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‘Evidence exists’ that Christie knew of closures, ex-official says

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Mel Evans-Pool/Getty Images

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

The former Port Authority official who personally oversaw the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, central to the scandal now swirling around Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, said Friday that “evidence exists” that the governor knew about the lane closings when they were happening.

A lawyer for the former official, David Wildstein, wrote a letter describing the move to shut the lanes as “the Christie administration’s order” and said “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” three weeks ago.

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During his news conference, Christie specifically said he had no knowledge that traffic lanes leading to the bridge had been closed until after they were reopened.

“I had no knowledge of this — of the planning, the execution or anything about it — and that I first found out about it after it was over,” he said. “And even then, what I was told was that it was a traffic study.”

The letter, which was sent as part of a dispute over Wildstein’s legal fees, does not specify what the evidence was. Nonetheless, it marks a striking break with a previous ally. Wildstein was a high school classmate of Christie’s who was hired with the governor’s blessing at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the bridge.

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Christie’s office responded late in the day with a statement that backed away somewhat from the governor’s previous assertions that he had not known about the lane closings until they were reported in the media. Instead, it focused on what the letter did not suggest — that Christie knew of the closings before they occurred.

“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 said. “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 Wildstein’s lawyer’s other assertions.”

Christie, a Republican, who made a brief appearance Friday night at Howard Stern’s 60th birthday party in Manhattan and introduced Jon Bon Jovi, did not respond to reporters who shouted questions as he left. Christie has repeatedly said that he did not know about the lane closings until they were first reported by The Record, a North Jersey newspaper, on Sept. 13, the day a senior Port Authority official ordered the lanes reopened.

The letter was sent from Wildstein’s lawyer, Alan Zegas of Chatham, N.J., to the Port Authority’s general counsel. It contested the agency’s decision not to pay Wildstein’s legal fees related to investigations into the lane closures by the U.S. attorney’s office and the state Legislature. The allegations about Christie make up just one long paragraph in a two-page letter that otherwise focuses on Wildstein’s demand that his legal fees be paid and that he be indemnified from any lawsuits.

But Wildstein, a former political strategist and one-time author of a popular but anonymous political blog, seemed to be making an aggressive move against the governor at what should have been a celebratory moment for Christie, who had eagerly anticipated the playing of the Super Bowl in New Jersey this weekend.

The Legislature has sent subpoenas to Wildstein and 17 other people as well as the governor’s campaign and administration seeking information about the lane closings. That information is due back Monday.

The scandal broke Jan. 8, when documents turned over by Wildstein in response to a previous subpoena from the Legislature revealed that a deputy chief of staff to the governor, Bridget Anne Kelly, had sent an email to him in August saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” the town at the New Jersey end of the bridge and where Christie’s aides had pursued but failed to receive an endorsement from the mayor, who is a Democrat.

“Got it,” Wildstein replied.

He then communicated the order to bridge operators. The closings caused extensive gridlock in Fort Lee. Christie fired Kelly the day after those emails were revealed, and his administration has tried to portray the closings as the actions of a rogue staff member.

But the documents from Wildstein were heavily redacted, leaving clues but no answers as to who else might have been involved in the lane closings. The documents included, for example, texts between Wildstein and Kelly trying to set up a meeting with the governor around the time the plan for the lane closings was hatched. It is unclear, however, what the meeting was about.

Wildstein’s lawyer has promised to turn over full versions of those emails to the legislative committee investigating the lane closures, but as of Friday evening, a spokesman for the committee said they had not been received.

Zegas did not respond to requests to discuss the letter.

Wildstein resigned from his position as the director of interstate capital projects at the agency in early December, saying that the scandal over the lane closings in September had become “a distraction.”

In his two-hour news conference, Christie said his friendship with Wildstein had been overstated; that while the governor had been class president and an athlete, he did not recall Wildstein well from that period and that he had rarely seen him in recent months. The Wall Street Journal has since published photos showing the two men laughing together at a Sept. 11 anniversary event — which happened during the four days the lanes were closed. A high school baseball coach also recalled their being on the same team.

His lawyer’s letter suggests that Wildstein was irritated, if not provoked, by Christie’s dismissiveness.

“Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the governor made about him, and he can prove the inaccuracy of some,” the letter added.

Also on Friday, the lawyer for another Christie aide sent a 19-page letter to Reid J. Schar, the special counsel leading the legislative committee’s investigation into the lane closures, asking him to withdraw a subpoena seeking a wide range of documents and other materials from the aide, saying it violated his Fifth Amendment rights.

The aide, Bill Stepien, the governor’s two-time campaign manager and former deputy chief of staff, was among those who resigned or lost their jobs when a series of emails about the lane closures were made public last month. He had just been retained as a consultant to the Republican Governors Association and was poised to head the state Republican party.

“Bill Stepien has not broken any laws,” the lawyer, Kevin H. Marino, wrote, arguing that the subpoena violates his client’s fundamental rights against self-incrimination and unreasonable search and seizure. “He is one of the most well respected political consultants in America.”

The panel, the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation, released a statement about the letters from the lawyers representing Marino and Wildstein.

“We have read the letter from Mr. Wildstein’s attorney and will consider it as our investigation moves forward,” the statement said. “We just received Mr. Marino’s letter this afternoon. We are reviewing it and considering our legal options with respect to enforcing the subpoena.”

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