Christie's office attacks credibility of former appointee

Gov. Christie was met with boos and wisecracks from the crowd at the Super Bowl hand-off ceremony in New York's Times Square on Saturday.
Gov. Christie was met with boos and wisecracks from the crowd at the Super Bowl hand-off ceremony in New York's Times Square on Saturday. (BEBETO MATTHEWS / Associated Press)
Posted: February 03, 2014

A day after the release of a letter claiming evidence contradicts Gov. Christie's timeline of when he knew about the George Washington Bridge lane closures, the Governor's Office shot back, attacking the credibility and character of the former Port Authority official behind the claims.

The e-mail the Governor's Office sent to supporters Saturday afternoon suggested David Wildstein, who oversaw the September lane closures, was making the claims in an attempt to gain immunity from prosecution.

The Inquirer obtained a copy of the e-mail, first reported by Politico.

Calling the release on Friday of attorney Alan Zegas' letter to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey "the bombshell that's not a bombshell," the e-mail includes links to a 2012 Bergen Record profile of Wildstein with quotes describing the then-Port Authority official - who attended high school with Christie and who was hired at the agency with the governor's approval - as "a political animal" who "frightened people."

The e-mail, sent by Christie spokesman Colin Reed, mentions Wildstein's past work as Wally Edge, an anonymous political blogger, and - in another reference to the Record's reporting - said Wildstein "was publicly accused by his high school social studies teacher of deceptive behavior."

"Bottom line - David Wildstein will do and say anything to save David Wildstein," the e-mail reads.

The e-mail also noted that Wildstein refused to testify before state lawmakers but has indicated he is willing to talk if given immunity.

Zegas could not be reached for comment Saturday. In a letter to Port Authority officials Friday asking the agency to cover Wildstein's legal fees, Zegas wrote, "evidence exists . . . tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures" while the closures were still underway.

Christie's office also accused the New York Times - which first reported online Friday on the Zegas letter - of "sloppy reporting." The e-mail focused on a wording change in the story that initially said Wildstein said he had evidence. The online story was later changed to say "evidence existed."

"We regularly update Web stories for clarity, as we did in this case. We do not note changes unless it involves an error," the New York Times said in a statement.

Christie said during a two-hour news conference Jan. 9 that he knew nothing of the four-day closure - later revealed to have been an apparent plot to jam traffic at the bridge - until it was over. He has said he learned of the closures through media accounts.

Zegas' letter did not describe the evidence or say that Wildstein had it. The e-mail from Christie's office cites remarks made by Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, one of the Democrats leading the legislative investigation into the closures, who told the Newark Star-Ledger he did not know why Wildstein would not have turned over evidence with the other documents he released under subpoena.

Though the substance of Zegas' claims was unclear Saturday, the letter's insinuation that Christie had not told the truth dealt a fresh blow to the embattled governor's image as he prepared for New Jersey's hosting of Sunday's Super Bowl.

Regardless of whether Christie knew about the lane closures earlier than he said he did, "the public perception is enormously important," said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. "This underscores that perception."

The governor, who won a landslide reelection in November and who has been seen as a likely presidential contender in 2016, has suffered a sharp drop in favorability ratings.

State lawmakers have issued 20 subpoenas, including to members of Christie's inner circle, seeking documents due to be returned Monday. Federal prosecutors have also issued subpoenas to Christie's reelection campaign.

Reid Schar, special counsel to lawmakers investigating the lane closures, said Saturday in a statement he met with the U.S. Attorney's Office Friday and was "comfortable the committee's investigation may continue."

Prosecutors are apparently also investigating allegations that Christie officials tied the release of Hurricane Sandy aid to approval of a redevelopment deal in Hoboken, claims the administration denies.

Christie's new rough-road reality was on display in the heart of Times Square on Saturday, when his appearance at the Super Bowl hand-off ceremony was greeted with boos and wisecracks from the crowd gridlocked around the Roman Numerals Stage on Super Bowl Boulevard.

"Stop closing bridges and you won't get booed!" shouted Broncos fan Louis Martella of Kearney, N.J.

The new claims make it "even less likely" state Democrats will work with the governor, hindering his ability to carry out his second-term agenda, said Patrick Murray, a political analyst at Monmouth University.

If Christie can't cast himself as a leader - and maintain his clout as chief fund-raiser for the Republican Governors Association - "that undermines his whole standing and his ability to claim the Republican establishment in 2016, which makes him just one of the pack," Murray said.

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said he didn't think the letter "justified the headlines I saw in the evening news last night."

The claims don't imperil Christie's chances as a presidential candidate, Sabato said. But that would change, he said, if proof emerged that he lied during last month's nationally televised news conference.

"He so strongly asserted he knew nothing at all - he had no clue," Sabato said. "If he can lie that convincingly about a matter, it's clear you don't want him in the Oval Office."


609-989-8990

mhanna@phillynews.com

@maddiehanna

Inquirer staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg contributed to this article.

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