NJ Bridgegate Panel Wants Gov’s Chief of Staff to Testify

June 4, 2014

By Martin Bricketto

The New Jersey panel investigating September’s politically charged closure of George Washington Bridge access lanes has subpoenaed Gov. Chris Christie’s chief of staff for testimony early next week, lawmakers said Wednesday.

The subpoena from the Select Committee on Investigation directs Kevin O’Dowd to appear before the panel on Monday at 10:30 a.m. to testify on the circumstances surrounding the lane closures, which snarled traffic in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and were initially defended as a legitimate Port Authority of New York and New Jersey traffic study. Documents disclosed in January showed a connection to Christie’s office and suggested an ulterior motive targeting Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who declined to endorse the governor for reelection.

In a statement, the committee’s co-chairs, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, described the subpoenas as “a necessary step in the committee’s bipartisan investigation into the lane closings and apparent abuse of government power and threat to public safety.”

“Mr. O’Dowd is in a unique position to provide insight into what happened under his watch as chief of staff to the governor,” the lawmakers said. “We look forward to his cooperation and testimony.”

A spokesman for the governor’s office and an attorney who has represented O’Dowd in connection with “Bridgegate” did not return requests for comment on Wednesday.

The announcement follows testimony Tuesday from Port Authority Commissioner William “Pat” Schuber, the first official from the bistate agency to appear before the panel, which has otherwise heard from current and former members of the governor’s office, including Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak and Christina Renna, former director of department relations for the Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs, or IGA.

Documents that blew apart the defense of the closures as a traffic study included a now infamous Aug. 13 email from former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly to former Port Authority official David Wildstein stating “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

“The committee will continue to follow the facts so that the people of New Jersey get the answers they deserve,” Wisniewski and Weinberg said.

Tapped Christie’s office, Gibson Dunn in a March report largely blamed Kelly and Wildstein for the closures and cleared the governor and the rest of his staff of involvement. The firm also found that onetime Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien and former Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni knew of the plan in advance, but there was no evidence that they were aware of any ulterior motive.

O’Dowd, a former federal prosecutor whose nomination as state Attorney General was apparently sidelined the bridge fiasco, was among those interviewed Gibson Dunn for the report. Represented Paul H. Zoubek of Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads during one of the interview sessions, O’Dowd denied any involvement or prior knowledge of the lane closures, according to a memorandum recounting the interview.

Christie in December had O’Dowd question Kelly on whether she had any involvement in the closures, which followed comments from Wildstein that Kelly and Stepien knew about the purported traffic study, according to the memorandum.

Kelly denied involvement in the lane closures at the time, producing certain emails for O’Dowd but not the “traffic problems” correspondence or other damaging communications that would make the closures a national scandal earlier this year, the memorandum said.

–Editing Mark Lebetkin.

Copyright Law360 2014. Reprinted here with permission.