The Federal Investigation of Bridgegate Is Limiting the State's Investigation

State lawmakers in New Jersey investigating last year's scheme to snarl traffic leading to the George Washington Bridge say they've yet to turn up evidence that Gov. Chris Christie knew anything about it.

By Joseph Tanfani

State lawmakers in New Jersey investigating last year's scheme to snarl traffic leading to the George Washington Bridge say they've yet to turn up evidence that Gov. Chris Christie knew anything about it.

After 11 months of work, the investigative committee issued an interim report Monday that acknowledged it couldn't get to the bottom of why two Christie aides created four days of monumental traffic jams, nor could the committee say whether they were acting on orders from anyone else. Lawmakers said they were blocked from interviewing key witnesses because of a federal criminal investigation.

The committee's leaders said there are still unanswered questions about what Christie knew about the bridge scandal, and whether his administration, worried about political damage, tried to block the truth from coming out.

The report said the governor's office "responded very slowly and passively" to the bridge controversy, raising questions about whether Christie's top people "took increasingly implausible explanations at face value because they knew or suspected a more damaging true story and preferred that it not come to light."

A lawyer for Christie, Randy Mastro, said the report simply confirms his firm's internal review, which absolved the governor from responsibility. And Republicans on the state panel blasted the investigation as a Democratic-led effort to smear Christie, a likely candidate for president in 2016.

The inquiry also found phone records showing that Christie began an exchange of 12 text messages with an aide during a legislative hearing on the bridge closures a year ago. But what those texts said is unknown because Christie and the aide, Regina Egea, apparently deleted them, the report says. At the time, Egea was Christie's liaison to the bi-state authority that operates the bridge; she's since been promoted to Christie's chief of staff.

In her testimony to the committee, Egea said she had sent the governor one text about the testimony, which she described as "not at all substantive," and deleted it. Christie has said he doesn't remember getting any texts about the hearings.

For a time, the scandal seemed like it might derail the presidential ambitions of Christie. But polls show his reputation has largely rebounded, and he has worked diligently to build relationships with top GOP donors and officials in other states.

The scandal's groundwork was laid in September 2013 when David Wildstein, a high school classmate of Christie's who worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, ordered the closure of some access lanes to the bridge, the world's busiest. The maneuver created four days of hellish traffic in Fort Lee, at the base of the bridge, and the town's Democratic mayor immediately started questioning whether it was political retaliation for his decision not to endorse Christie's bid for re-election.

At the time, Christie was far ahead of his Democratic challenger, but his campaign operatives, trying to polish his reputation as a bipartisan leader, were focused on racking up as many endorsements as possible from Democratic mayors. The legislators' investigation found Christie's aides "blurred the lines" between their public jobs and the re-election campaign.

For nearly four months, Christie and his top appointees insisted that they were conducting a traffic study that forced them to close lanes. Christie repeatedly ridiculed questions about the traffic jam.

But that story fell apart in January, when an email exchange surfaced between Wildstein and Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff in Christie's office. "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," she wrote Wildstein before the closures.

Wildstein resigned and Kelly was fired, but no evidence has surfaced that anyone else was involved in the scheme. Wildstein has said he told Christie about the lane closures at the time, but Christie says he has no recollection of that. Likewise, aides have said they told Christie in December about Kelly's and Wildstein's potential involvement; the report documents a flurry of calls and meetings that month, as the controversy grew hotter.

But Christie says he was shocked when the email exchange surfaced, an assertion that drew skepticism.

"I find that the governor's I-knew-nothing defense to not only be frankly hard to accept but a remarkably low standard for a chief executive's leadership skills," said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat and the co-chairman of the investigative committee. "When did pleading ignorance become an acceptable alternative to taking responsibility?"

The bipartisan investigation committee, begun in January, ended up steeped in political rancor. On Monday, Republicans on the committee issued their own 119-page statement that says the state attorney general should investigate whether Democrats broke any laws by using public resources to further "a national Democratic mission to destroy a popular Republican governor."

"This is not North Korea, John, this is America," said state Sen. Kevin O'Toole, a Republican, as Wisniewski tried to cut him off at a hearing.

(c)2014 Tribune Co.