There is evidence that Gov. Chris Christie knew of the George Washington Bridge access lane closings as they were happening, says a lawyer for the former port authority official blamed for the politically motivated incident, but Christie's office denied the allegation.
A Friday letter from David Wildstein's attorney says "evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the Governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference he gave immediately before Mr. Wildstein was scheduled to appear before the Transportation Committee.
"Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some," the letter also reads. The letter was first reported by the New York Times.
The letter, from attorney Alan Zegas and addressed to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, seeks a reconsideration of the authority's decision to not pay Wildstein's legal fees.
Christie's press office distributed a statement saying the governor "had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures.''
"Mr. Wildstein's lawyer confirms what the Governor has said all along - he had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened and whatever Mr. Wildstein's motivations were for closing them to begin with,'' the statement said. "As the Governor said in a December 13th press conference, he only first learned lanes were closed when it was reported by the press and as he said in his January 9th press conference, had no indication that this was anything other than a traffic study until he read otherwise the morning of January 8th. The Governor denies Mr. Wildstein's lawyer's other assertions."
Zegas' letter sent shock waves through New Jersey's political community, with one veteran pundit saying the revelation was a "bombshell."
"Most of us who have watched this governor over the past several weeks anticipated this, given his demeanor has been rather un-Christie-like," said Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.
Wildstein has been central in the probe into the lane closings, which occurred in September and snarled traffic in Fort Lee for hours over a period of four days. The closings led some Democrats to say the incident was meant as political retribution because the Fort Lee mayor declined to endorse Christie's re-election bid.
Originally, Wildstein, Christie and others claimed the closings were the result of a traffic study, but e-mails released earlier this month showed the closings were discussed between Wildstein and Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly in August.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Kelly wrote to Wildstein.
"Got it," Wildstein replied.
When the e-mails surfaced on Jan. 8, Christie's office released a prepared statement in which the governor indicated he didn't know about his staff's involvement until that day.
"What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge," the statement said.
The next day, Christie held a two-hour press conference during which he said he had no prior knowledge of the incident. He also announced he had fired Kelly. Wildstein, a longtime Christie ally, had already resigned from the authority.
Democrats and national political commentators jumped on the latest revelations.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Mo Elleithee put out a statement almost immediately:
"Chris Christie said he barely knew David Wildstein. That was untrue. He said he hadn't seen Mr. Wildstein in a long time. That was untrue. He's repeatedly said that he had no knowledge of the lane closures. Today's revelations raise serious questions about whether that is true," Elleithee said.
"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," Elleithee added.
The Super Bowl is taking place at MetLife Stadium in North Jersey, and Christie has been actively promoting the state's role in the festivities this week.
Paul Begala, a former adviser to President Clinton and host of CNN's Crossfire who now teaches at the University of Georgia School of Law, tweeted: "I'm no expert on politics or scandal or the press, but this seems like a bad story for Chris Christie."
In a related development, Christie's re-election campaign manager wants his George Washington Bridge subpoena withdrawn because it violates his "Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination," according to a letter sent today by Bill Stepien's attorney to Reid Schar, counsel for the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation.
Subpoenaed information from 18 people and two organizations is due Monday.
"Bill Stepien has not broken any laws. He is one of the most well respected political consultants in America," the letter from attorney Kevin Marino reads. "Indeed, as is now widely known, he was poised to become Chairman of the New Jersey Republican Party and had already been retained as a consultant to the powerful Republican Governors' Association when he was summarily disqualified from both positions following the publication of two email exchanges he had with executives of the Port Authority."
Christie fired Stepien after the e-mails also indicated that Stepien had made derogatory remarks about the mayor of Fort Lee as the closings began to attract media attention.
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said Zegas' claims had turned the probe "into a lot more serious situation and a lot more disturbing, with someone so close to the governor saying that he's essentially a liar."
"I think this is real serious. The governor had a two-hour press conference essentially saying he knew nothing about the bridge closing. Now Wildstein is saying he did," Pallone said. "The allegation by Wildstein that the governor knew totally contradicts what the governor said to the American people. I think this takes us to another level because Wildstein is saying the governor didn't tell the truth."
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