NEW YORK — The former Port Authority official who personally oversaw the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, central to the scandal now swirling around Governor 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.
During that news conference, Christie said he had no knowledge 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, which controls the bridge.
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 US 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 onetime author of a popular but anonymous political blog, seemed to be making an aggressive move against Christie at what should have been a celebratory moment for Christie, who eagerly anticipated 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 e-mail 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 e-mails 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 redacted, leaving clues but no answers as to who else might have been involved in the lane closings.