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Internal report clears N.J. governor

NEW YORK — The Port Authority official who directed the shutdown of lanes to the George Washington Bridge said that he informed Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey about it at a Sept. 11 memorial while the lanes were closed, according to an internal review released Thursday by lawyers for the governor.

The official, David Wildstein, told Christie’s press secretary, Michael Drewniak, of the conversation at a dinner in December, on the eve of his resignation from the Port Authority, according to the inquiry.

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But the report said that Christie did not recall Wildstein’s raising the topic and, in a sweeping claim of vindication, found no evidence that he — or any current members of his staff — was involved in or aware of the scheme before it snarled traffic for thousands of commuters in Fort Lee, N.J., from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12.

The inquiry instead blamed, almost entirely, Wildstein and the governor’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, describing Kelly as scrambling to cover up her role.

Christie has said he did not know of the lane closings before or while they were occurring, making the account of the purported exchange between Wildstein and Christie perhaps the most provocative revelation in the report, commissioned by Christie at a cost to taxpayers of at least $1 million.

Throughout its 360 pages, the document wove together panicked private e-mails, derisive text messages, and descriptions of dramatic confrontations between the Republican governor and his staff as the scandal unfolded.

Two parallel investigations, by the state Legislature and federal prosecutors, are not yet complete.

At a heated televised news conference, the former federal prosecutor who led the internal inquiry, Randy M. Mastro, frequently sounded like a defense lawyer making his case to a jury. He called Kelly a “liar” and cast doubt on the credibility of the mayor of Hoboken, who accused the Christie administration of political intimidation.

Mastro, and his report, went so far as to describe a romantic relationship between Kelly and a top adviser to Christie who has been caught up in the imbroglio, seemingly insinuating that its breakup may have colored her judgment.

Wildstein, Kelly, and Bill Stepien, the former Christie campaign official to whom Kelly, it was suggested, was romantically linked, all declined to be interviewed for the internal report, raising questions about its thoroughness.

Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken, also declined to be interviewed; she had accused the Christie administration of threatening to withhold recovery money for Hurricane Sandy if she refused to back a real estate project. The review, conducted by the corporate law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, found her claims groundless.

The report did, however, outline extensive access to Christie, his lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, and the members of their staffs. But for all its tantalizing details, gleaned from a review of 250,000 pages of documents and interviews with more than 70 individuals, the report failed to resolve a central question: What motivated the closings?

Gibson Dunn lawyers wrote of an “ulterior motive” but could not identify it.

Christie later fired Kelly and cut ties to Stepien.

Despite Kelly’s senior status, the internal inquiry concluded that her behavior was “aberrational” and dismissed claims from Democrats that Christie fostered or condoned a culture of partisan payback.

“We found that this was the action of the few,” Mastro said at the news conference, in Gibson Dunn’s offices. “This is not reflective of the whole.”

Nevertheless, Mastro and his legal team recommended a series of immediate changes to the structure of the governor’s office: the creation of an ombudsman to begin restoring public trust, the appointment of an ethics officer to train the governor’s staff, and the elimination of the intergovernmental affairs office that Kelly oversaw.

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