March 27th, 2014
02:13 PM ET
4 years ago

Internal probe: Christie doesn't recall being informed of traffic jams

(CNN) - A top appointee of Chris Christie apparently told another official that he informed the New Jersey governor about the now-infamous traffic tie ups near the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee last year as they were occurring, according to a review of the matter by outside lawyers hired by the governor's office.

But details of the internal investigation released on Thursday said Christie "does not recall" any conversation with David Wildstein, then an executive of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, at a public event last September, and it all wouldn't have "registered" anyway because the governor "knew nothing about this decision in advance."

Christie has maintained repeatedly that he knew nothing of the gridlock created by selected lane closures to the nation's busiest bridge until after they occurred and only from media reports.

And he has denied any knowledge the tie ups were allegedly ordered to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing the governor's reelection.

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Although the review introduced new details and magnified allegations against key players, it did not offer any clarity on why the lanes were closed beyond "some ulterior motive to target (Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich)."

Still, Christie's team said some things are now better understood.

"We are confident that, based on our thorough review, we have a clear understanding of what happened here, even if the participants' precise motives remain to be determined," the review said.

The scandal, under investigation by a state legislative committee and the U.S. Attorney's office over concern Christie appointees abused their authority, has called into question the governor's forceful governing style.

The report examined the claim that Christie had created a "culture" of bullying adversaries and found it "unsubstantiated."

The multiple investigations have also cast a cloud over any potential presidential campaign he may launch for 2016. Christie said on Wednesday night that the saga, which has engulfed a number of key officials he appointed since taking office in 2009, has not altered his thinking about a possible White House run.

Christie said in an interview for ABC's "World News" on Thursday that he couldn't believe it when he first heard about the traffic jam allegations and that he felt "taken advantage of" by his aides.

"I said, 'This can't possibly be true because who would do something like that?' Sometimes people do inexplicably stupid things," Christie said, adding that "none of it made any sense to me and to some extent still does not."

Team of lawyers

A team of lawyers from the firm Gibson Dunn led by Randy Mastro, a former deputy New York City mayor, examined more than 250,000 documents, including emails and text messages as part of the investigation, according to their review, which Mastro detailed publicly.

As previously reported, the internal investigation found no evidence linking Christie to the tie ups that occurred when certain access lanes dedicated to the bridge were closed without warning over a work week.

The findings concluded that Wildstein carried it out, an allegation suggested in emails released publicly around the legislative investigation in January.

"David Wildstein is the person who originated this idea and orchestrated it," Mastro said at his law office.

The review also singled out Bridget Kelly, a former Christie deputy chief of staff who sent the infamous email to Wildstein weeks before the tie ups: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

Mastro said the investigation concluded no one in Christie's office other than her "knew of this idea in advance, played any role in the decision or the implementation of it."

A key passage involved a dinner in December between Wildstein and Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak who "passed along" Wildstein's claims to "others in the governor's office" that Wildstein had suggested that he mentioned the traffic jams to Christie at a public event while they were going on.

The review said Christie did not recall the reference, did not know about the issue in advance, and would not have considered "another traffic issue" at one of the notoriously congested bridges or tunnels linking New York and New Jersey "to be memorable."

Wildstein, Kelly, and a number of others have been subpoenaed as part of the state legislative investigation.

Wildstein has refused to testify before legislative investigators. Kelly is fighting her subpoena in court.

Unable to speak with key players

Investigators conducting the internal review were not able to speak with Wildstein, Kelly or other prominent figures in the scandal.

The review also found that Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien and Port Authority Executive Director Bill Baroni, another Christie appointee, knew of the plan to close the lanes in advance, but there was no evidence uncovered that the two men knew why.

The report also found that Stepien and Kelly had a personal relationship that ended by early August with the two not on speaking terms.

"That might explain," Mastro said, "a lack of communication between the two of them during the critical period when this lane realignment decision was made."

He went on to say that it was not meant imply anything regarding an ulterior motive for the lane closings.

The review alleged Kelly and Wildstein covered up the motive by telling members of the Christie administration that the gridlock was part of a traffic study, a claim that Democrats have questioned.

Lawyers for Wildstein and Kelly could not immediately be reached for comment.

Kevin Marino, the attorney for Stepien, said the internal review "only confirms" that Stepien, who managed Christie's two successful gubernatorial campaigns, "had no involvement whatsoever in the planning, execution or concealment of the lane closures."

He called the revelation of a personal relationship between Stepien and Kelly was offensive.

"The only reason it can possibly be in there is to create a headline. So let's just inject something that's salacious. It's just pathetic!" Marino said. "It's totally improper. It has no relevancy to this report whatsoever."

Not the final word

State Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, Democrats leading the legislative investigation, issued a strongly worded statement about the internal probe.

"Lawyers hired by and paid by the Christie administration itself to investigate the governor's office who then say the governor and most of his office did nothing wrong will not be the final word on this matter," they said.

"The people of New Jersey need a full accounting of what happened. This review has deficiencies that raise questions about a lack of objectivity and thoroughness," they said. "We will continue to pursue our investigation wherever the facts lead. We want a full accounting of the lane closings and any related abuses of power and what can be done to ensure this doesn't happen again."

Christie, in the ABC interview said that the review was not conducted by his personal lawyers, but by outside attorneys hired by his office.

Mastro also defended the investigation he led.

"We are lawyers, former federal prosecutors, professionals doing an independent investigation. It serves no one's interest, not ours, not the governor's, not the governor's office, and not the constituency that the governor's office serves - the people of New Jersey, for us to have tried to do anything other than uncover the truth and report the truth because we're going to be judge on whether we got it right," he said.

Kelly was fired, while Wildstein, Stepien and Baroni have all left their jobs.

CNN's Chris Frates contributed to this report.

Filed under: Chris Christie • New Jersey
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