AP Photo/Mel Evans
Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 | 12:03 a.m.
TRENTON, N.J. — As New Jersey lawmakers last year began investigating lane closures that caused four days of brutal traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge, Gov. Chris Christie was insistent about one thing: He did not know about the tie-ups until they were over.
His critics had doubts but not proof, even as emails made public in January showed that one of Christie's aides called for "some traffic problems in Fort Lee," apparently as political retribution against the Democratic mayor of the town for not supporting Christie's re-election campaign.
Friday, the lawyer for a former Christie loyalist said in a letter that "evidence exists" that Christie knew about the closures as they were happening, although he did not accuse the Republican governor and possible 2016 presidential candidate of knowing about it beforehand. In a statement, Christie's office denied the allegation made on behalf of former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive David Wildstein.
But even without detailing any evidence, the claim gave Christie's critics something new to seize on as they bashed the governor as he appeared at events leading up to Sunday's Super Bowl in his state.
"I know it's Super Bowl weekend and Chris Christie doesn't want to talk about anything but the game, but it looks like he's going to need to change his plans," Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin said in a statement.
Attorney Alan Zegas laid out Wildstein's claim that Christie was not being truthful in a letter Friday asking the Port Authority, the entity that runs the bridge, to pay his legal fees. He also says in the letter that Wildstein "contests the accuracy of various statements that the governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some."
Documents released Jan. 8 showed that Wildstein, as Christie's No. 2 man at the Port Authority, ordered the lane closures starting Sept. 9, about a month after getting a text message from a Christie administration aide calling for the "traffic problems."
By then, Wildstein, who attended Livingston High School with Christie, had already resigned amid the growing scandal.
On Jan. 9, Christie held a nearly two-hour news conference in which he apologized and denied involvement in and knowledge of the plot. He was asked if he understood why people would have a hard time believing he didn't know about it.
"I don't know what else to say except to tell them that I had no knowledge of this — of the planning, the execution or anything about it — and that I first found out about it after it was over."
"And even then, what I was told was that it was a traffic study," he said.
Like he did when asked in December, he said he first learned of the closures from media accounts after the lanes had been reopened.
Wildstein supplied hundreds of pages of documents, some heavily redacted, to a legislative committee investigating the closures. He also appeared before the lawmakers under subpoena on the same day as Christie's news conference, but refused to answer questions.
Wildstein, who previously was a political blogger, said Zegas advised him to remain silent for fear of being prosecuted. Zegas has said Wildstein would be willing to talk if he is granted immunity from criminal investigators. The U.S. Attorney's Office is also investigating.
The committee found him to be in contempt and referred the case to a prosecutor.
Christie had adamantly denied staff members were involved until private emails that were subpoenaed and released showed otherwise. Besides Wildstein, three others connected to Christie have been fired or resigned.
No subpoenas target Christie himself, who has just begun a yearlong chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association.