Interviews show Christie staff reacting to scandal

The George Washington Bridge, seen from Fort Lee, N.J., where the closure of entrance lanes led to major backups.
The George Washington Bridge, seen from Fort Lee, N.J., where the closure of entrance lanes led to major backups. (MEL EVANS / AP)
Posted: April 16, 2014

TRENTON - The law firm hired by Gov. Christie to investigate the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge released more than 400 pages of documents Monday that describe in detail interactions among the governor's aides as the controversy over the closures unfolded.

The documents - summaries of 75 interviews conducted by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher - do not appear to contain new revelations about the controversy.

The interviews, which formed the basis of the firm's report clearing Christie and his senior staff of wrongdoing in the lane closures, include accounts of tense staff meetings and frustrations about former aides implicated in the scandal.

The release comes after a state court judge ruled last week that two key figures in the controversy did not have to comply with subpoenas issued by the legislative committee probing the September lane closures.

The committee had requested that Gibson Dunn provide its interview summaries, saying the panel would issue a subpoena to the firm if the memos were not shared.

The firm, which posted the memos online Monday, said it also had provided the documents to the U.S. Attorney's Office for its investigation of the closures.

The interviews summarized in the memos also addressed questions about distribution of Hurricane Sandy aid and allegations made by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that Christie officials had conditioned the release of that city's aid upon approval of a redevelopment deal there. The Gibson Dunn report concluded that Zimmer's allegations were false.

Asked for his reaction to the summaries, Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), cochair of the committee, replied: "Raspberries."

In one passage, Christie recalls eating raspberries while at a retreat with his senior staff and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.

"He recalls eating raspberries, but he doesn't recall what David Wildstein said," Wisniewski said, referring to allegations that Wildstein, a former official with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, told Christie of the lane closures while they were ongoing.

Christie has said he doesn't recall any such conversation.

"I don't know what to make of it other than that the raspberries were more important than David Wildstein," Wisniewski said.

He added that he thought Gibson Dunn's summaries were fully responsive to the committee's requests, though he was "disappointed" that the firm did not provide transcripts. Wisniewski also said it was "pretty clear" that the committee would start taking oral testimony in May.

Gibson Dunn interviewed Christie three times in February and March, according to the summary of the interviews.

The summaries reinforce what the report stated: that Wildstein and Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor's former deputy chief of staff, orchestrated the traffic jams, and that Christie and his current staff played no role.

The summaries also provide a window into Christie's handling of the crisis, as he tried to gather information and respond accordingly.

For example, when the scandal exploded Jan. 8 with the release of damaging e-mails, Christie met with his senior staff and decided to fire Kelly, who wrote in an Aug. 13 e-mail, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

But there was some disagreement about how to proceed with Bill Stepien, the governor's campaign manager. His name had surfaced in the documents, and in one he described Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, the borough near the bridge, as an "idiot." Michael DuHaime, Christie's top political strategist, argued for keeping Stepien, saying the e-mails corroborated Stepien's account that he didn't know anything about the lane closures.

But Christie disagreed, "in part because of the language Stepien used in the released e-mails, but also because he felt he could no longer trust Stepien," according to the lawyer's summary.

Among those present at the Jan. 8 meeting was David Samson, chairman of the Port Authority board and an ally of Christie's, according to the documents.

Samson has since resigned after coming under scrutiny for alleged conflicts of interest involving his law firm. He declined to be interviewed by Gibson Dunn.

As the lane-closure controversy was brewing in December, Christie summoned his senior staff to Drumthwacket, the governor's mansion, to express his disappointment in their performance since his convincing reelection in November. He cited communications blunders over the traffic jams and his unsuccessful attempt to oust State Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr. (R., Union) from his leadership post.

"At the meeting, the governor said words like, 'We don't have scandals,' and, 'This is not us,' " according to a summary of Gibson Dunn's interview with Michael Drewniak, the governor's press secretary.

The summaries also recount various officials' frustrations with Wildstein. After documents released Jan. 8 showed Wildstein's apparent involvement in the lane closures, Wildstein wrote Drewniak to complain about news coverage. (The two had been socially friendly.)

In an e-mail with the subject line "Serbian" - referring to Sokolich - Wildstein wrote: "Did you see that bastard [Sokolich] hamming it up on Wolf Blitzer?"

Drewniak was "floored," the summary says, and "thought that it was some kind of trap."


mhanna@phillynews.com

609-989-8990 @maddiehanna

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