Tough Sell: New Jersey Lawmakers, Voters Aren't Buying Christie Claims on Bridge-gate

Image: Tough Sell: New Jersey Lawmakers, Voters Aren't Buying Christie Claims on Bridge-gate

Sunday, 12 Jan 2014 06:59 PM

By Todd Beamon and Sandy Fitzgerald

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Even as some national conservatives come to his defense, lawmakers and his own constituents are having a hard time accepting that a hands-on manager like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie didn't know that his staff was ordering a partial shutdown of a major thoroughfare for political payback.

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On Sunday, several leading state lawmakers expressed skepticism that Christie didn't have at least partial knowledge of what was going on.

One high-ranking Democrat is already raising the specter of impeachment.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who's heading the panel probing the lane closures that snarled traffic on the George Washington Bridge last September, said the scandal "clearly becomes an impeachable offense" if Christie ordered the shutdown.

And one of the few polls conducted after the governor's two-hour press conference last week showed a majority of voters in New Jersey don't believe Christie.

New Jersey lawmakers are vowing to continue investigating the Bridge-gate scandal engulfing Christie, with the incoming speaker of the state Assembly saying he would call the body into special session.

"The documents released this week related to the George Washington Bridge situation clearly show the need for a continued thorough investigation by the New Jersey General Assembly," Democratic Speaker-elect Vincent Prieto said Saturday.

"Many questions remain unanswered about this threat to public safety and abuse of power," he said in a statement. "I expect to call the Assembly into special session on Thursday to consider legislation that would reauthorize subpoena power so this investigation can continue."

Prieto is to take the oath as speaker Tuesday.

"Using the George Washington Bridge, a public resource, to exact a political vendetta, is a crime," Wisniewski, told NBC News on Saturday.

"Having people use their official position to have a political game is a crime. So if those tie back to the governor in any way, it clearly becomes an impeachable offense," he added

On Sunday, he said it was "unbelievable" that nobody on Christie's staff told him what was going on.

Wisniewski told "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer that not only deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, who was fired after sending an email ordering the lane closures knew about the issues, but several of Christie's other key staffers knew as well.

"I don't think it's possible for all those people to be involved and know and the governor not know," Wisniewski said on the CBS news show Sunday.

Wisniewski said is is too far too early to discuss impeachment proceedings against the governor. But if it is proven that Christie ordered the lane closures for retribution, though, "that amounts to using public property for political purposes, which is not legal," said the senator.

As the investigation continues, and if it's proven Christie was behind ordering the bridge lanes closed,, the state's assembly has the right to write articles of impeachment against the governor, Wisniewski said.

Voters seem just as skeptical. A telephone survey of 800 likely New Jersey voters, conducted by Rasmussen Reports, shows that 54 percent believe "it's at least somewhat likely" that Christie was aware that the lanes were closed over retaliation over the city's mayor refusing to support his reelection.

The poll showed mixed opinions among the state's normally loyal Christie supporters. Just over one-third, or 36 percent, still believe it's unlikely Christie knew anything about the plan to close the lanes before it happened, and another 30 percent think it was very likely he was aware. Just 17 percent of the voters said it was not at all likely Christie knew beforehand.

If it turns out that Christie knew beforehand, 56 percent of the states residents think he should step down, but 29 percent disagree.

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Christie denied, in a nearly two-hour long press conference on Thursday, that he knew anything about the closures that snarled traffic between Fort Lee and New York City, other than they may have been caused by a traffic study.

Critics have charged that the closures were political payback because Mayor Mark Sokolich did not support Christie's re-election bid last year. The governor, who traveled to Fort Lee Thursday to apologize to Sokolich personally, is considered a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2016.

On Friday, the claims against Christie deepened when more than 2,000 pages of documents were released by the state's Transportation, including documents referring to meeting between the Republican governor and Port Authority Chairman David Samson a week before Kelly sent her email saying it was time for traffic problems in Fort Lee.

Meanwhile, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, also appearing on "Face the Nation," when asked about the growing bridge-gate scandal, also noted that it's very early in the investigation, and more information will be coming.

Rubio refused comment, saying that he knows little about the situation beyond what's being reported in the press, but Cummings, like Wisniewski, said he finds it hard to believe that Christie knew nothing about the lane closures.

"When I look at Christie's style, it's hard for me to believe he was blindsided by anything," said Cummings.

However, he said that rather than have a formal investigation in Washington, "i think what we need to do is see what comes out" from the New Jersey General Assembly investigation and the ongoing U.S. Attorney office's probe.

"They are basically investigating a former federal prosecutor," Cummings noted about the governor. "But there may be a point where we have to look into it. Nobody is above the law."

Renewing the subpoena authority of the Assembly's Transportation Committee would allow the panel to continue requesting documents from the Christie administration and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on the bridge closures after its power ends on Monday, the last day of the current legislative session.

The Port Authority is the bi-state agency that oversees the George Washington Bridge and other transportation operations in the region.

“I do think laws have been broken," Wisniewski told CNN Saturday. "Public resources — the bridge, police officers — all were used for a political purpose, for some type of retribution, and that violates the law."

He said legislators needed to “make sure any violations of law are addressed."

He said he would ask Christie and his staff on Monday to provide more correspondence and documents related to the lane closures that created massive gridlock on the world's busiest bridge for four days last September.

"There's still a lot of documents we haven't gotten we'd like to see," Wisniewski said.

In his statement, Prieto also praised the chairman's work.

"Chairman Wisniewski has done an outstanding and professional job leading this investigation, and I look forward to working with him as he continues to lead our inquiry," he said.

The calls for a continued inquiry came after more than 2,000 pages of documents, including emails and text messages, were released Friday by the Transportation Committee.

The documents referred to a meeting between Christie and Port Authority Chairman David Samson a week before a former Christie aide ordered the traffic lanes closed and that police had blamed Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee for the ensuing four days of massive gridlock.

Critics have charged that the closures were political payback because Sokolich did not support Christie's re-election bid last year. The governor is considered a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2016.

The documents also show a general state of chaos and anger — and efforts to stall media inquiries — as thousands of commuters were trapped in the huge gridlock but fail to specifically tie the closures to what Christie said might have been a Port Authority traffic study.

The three local access lanes leading to the bridge's toll booths at Fort Lee were closed Sept. 9-13 without notice. They also slowed school buses and emergency workers, including those responding to a call of an unconscious 91-year-old woman who later died at an area hospital.

The new documents came a day after Christie apologized to Sokolich for the bridge scandal and expressed regret at a two-hour news conference at which he said that he knew nothing about the lane closures.

Christie told the session that he had fired Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly, who wrote in an email to Port Authority executive David Wildstein in August: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

Wildstein, who resigned last month as the agency's director of interstate capital projects because of the scandal, replied: "Got it."

State officials subpoenaed the documents from Wildstein and charged him with contempt on Thursday for repeatedly invoking his Fifth Amendment rights in testimony before the Transportation Committee. He had been appointed to his Port Authority post by Christie.

"I come out here to apologize to the people of New Jersey," Christie said at the Thursday news conference. "I apologize to the people of Fort Lee. And I apologize to the State Legislature."

Wisniewski said Saturday that no evidence or documents had surfaced that specifically linked Christie to the lane closures — but that the panel was seeking to learn whether anyone else in the governor's office might have been involved.

"Our investigation would be made immeasurably simpler if the governor's office would say: 'Please tell us what you'd like. We'll turn over all of those documents, the governmental emails, the personal emails, the correspondence, so that you can look at them and determine for yourself,'" Wisniewski told CNN.

A Christie spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

After the second round of documents were released on Friday, Wisniewski said that they raised more questions than they answered about whether Christie knew about the traffic tie-up.

He added that he believed that laws were broken but said any decision to bring criminal charges would be made by prosecutors.

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U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman, whose job Christie held before being elected governor, has asked the FBI to assist its investigation into the decision to lane closures.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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