With new emails revealing that Chris Christie confidant and campaign manager Bill Stepien knew about Fort Lee lane closures while they were still going on, the scandal has been brought another step closer to Christie himself.
“It paints a picture that the political team was managing the press affairs” over the bridge flap, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who co-chairs the New Jersey Legislature’s joint committee investigating the allegations, told Salon. Interviewed late Tuesday, Wisniewski accused Republican colleagues of “nitpicking” to “undermine the credibility of the committee,” and suggested the Port Authority “may very well need to be re-created, [from] the ground up.” The assemblyman said Christie runs “an administration that has sought to maximize the political benefit of everything they touch”; has chosen to chase 2016 GOP primary voters “even if he has to give up time governing the state of New Jersey”; and, if he’s telling the truth, is “a bad manager of people who has allowed rogue elements to misuse their authority without scrutiny.”
A condensed version of our conversation follows.
What is most significant from what we learned in the emails released this week?
These emails further reveal the regular communication about the bridge affair with individuals in the governor’s political organization. You see emails in which folks are sending notice that this reporter has called and I’m not responding, or that reporter has called and asked this question. And so it paints a picture that the political team was managing the press affairs, insofar as the bridge incident is concerned.
What’s been disclosed over the past couple months – the additional information we have, does it affect the credibility of the account that Gov. Christie has provided on these allegations?
Well, I think it’s premature to say that these emails impeach the governor’s credibility on what he said. But clearly the emails show that senior people in his inner circle had contemporaneous knowledge of the lane closure, and had knowledge about the efforts to obfuscate to the press the true reason for the lane closures.
How do you see the relationship between your inquiry and the actions of the U.S. attorney … Is there any conflict here?
Our goal is to understand the problems, so we can fix the laws and make sure it doesn’t happen again. The U.S. attorney’s office has a different charge. And so there’s a distinct difference between what we’re doing and what they’re doing.
That being said, only the U.S. attorney’s office knows for sure exactly what they’re doing, and what they’re looking at …
When you reference changing the laws – what could that look like?
Well, we don’t know yet. Because we don’t know the full account as to why Bridget Kelly sent the email that she did, and how it could so effortlessly be implemented to close and divert those lanes and create the havoc that it did for Fort Lee. I think once we have a better picture, it probably will enable us to very quickly propose legislation that could help prevent this from happening again.
The Port Authority is known as an independent agency. It’s a bi-state agency created to run transportation infrastructure between the two states. But in this incident, in this case of the bridge, it appears that the Port Authority was an instrumentality of the governor’s office, where a deputy chief of staff was able to send an email to a high-ranking Port Authority figure and effect the lane change. That certainly belies the nominal expectation that the Port Authority is independent.
So does that suggest that the Port Authority could need to be restructured?
I think that restructuring won’t address the systemic problems that exist at the Port Authority. It may very well need to be recreated, [from] the ground up.
But that being said, the culture in the governor’s office needs to be examined. Because the Port Authority is not genuinely viewed - at least by the documents we’ve seen – not genuinely viewed as an independent agency, but instead is viewed as just another desk in the governor’s office.
What we’ve been calling Bridgegate, being followed by these allegations from [Hoboken Mayor] Dawn Zimmer – how much of a relationship is there between these allegations in terms of the picture that gets painted?
Well, I think the common denominator between the allegations of Mayor Zimmer and the Bridgegate allegations is that they both involve the Port Authority … The Port Authority seems to have played a role in some redevelopment of land in Hoboken; that it seems, based on the stories that I’ve read, that there was some connection to … people in the Port Authority chairman’s law office and the governor’s office with regard to Sandy aid. Those are the allegations.
Clearly, we’re a long way from having a conclusive understanding as to whether those allegations are backed up by facts. I mean, there’s certainly testimony of Mayor Zimmer – which, you know, has to be taken as credible – she’s an elected official by the city of Hoboken …
The Republican Assembly minority leader suggested in January, on MSNBC, that ultimately, Chris Christie will be found blameless, and “comes out of this as a tougher, stronger and even more popular leader.” Is that possible?
Well, I can understand why Jon Bramnick would hope that. But I think what this investigation shows thus far is, to take the governor at his word, he’s a bad manager of people who has allowed rogue elements to misuse their authority without scrutiny. I mean, that’s taking the governor at his word.
We still don’t have answers to all our questions. And we need to continue to probe to get those answers, and [then] we’ll be in a better position to determine whether Jon Bramnick was prescient or wrong.
The concerns or objections that Republicans have raised, arguing that they do not have enough of a role in the Legislature’s investigation – what do you make of those?
Well, I think they’re looking for arguments to try to undermine the credibility of the committee. Their role is no greater or less than what they choose to make of it. To date, they’ve made no suggestions on individuals that should be subpoenaed, or documents that should be requested. Instead, they’ve chosen to have their involvement consist solely of nitpicking every single decision that’s been made to date.
The fact of the matter is, there are no Republican facts, and there are no Democratic facts. And what the committee’s charge is, is to get at the facts. Now, they may not like the facts that are uncovered. They may wish those facts not be uncovered. But we can’t rewrite history. We can’t change what people have done.
The ethics complaint that was brought by the New Jersey Working Families Alliance against David Samson – what do you make of that?
… The process has to unfold, and they have to put their case on, and Mr. Samson’s going to have to provide a defense to it. Clearly much has been written by the press about the many business arrangements that [law firm] Wolff & Samson had, and he’s the principal partner there …
Is it appropriate for someone who has so many ongoing connections and involvements to be in that role at the Port Authority?
Well, what I’ve said is that I don’t know how Dave Samson can continue to be effective in his role as chairman of the Port Authority with all of this controversy swirling about him.
Does that mean he should resign, or be asked to resign?
Well, I know that people have asked. Editorials have opined. My simple position is that I don’t know how he can continue to be effective with all of the controversy that’s swirling about him.
What about the governor? Can he continue to be effective?
Well, I think the governor has to examine his own actions in this. Let’s not forget [or] lose sight of the fact that before January, the governor was routinely mocking this investigation, and suggesting that Senator Weinberg and myself had nothing better to do, and even went to the point of mockingly saying that he was the guy that moved the cones. And then fast-forward to January, then the governor was outraged at what Bridget Kelly had done, and ultimately had terminated her employment, and expressed some regret – although nothing bordering on a full apology – to the people of Fort Lee. So you know, the governor’s position on this has evolved from the initial day, and I suspect it may continue to evolve.
And when the governor goes to CPAC, and in particular highlights the changes to collective bargaining and laws around unions that his Republican colleagues in other states have been able to get passed, does that send some kind of signal in New Jersey?
Well … I’m not sure anybody who would be embraced by CPAC would ever be able to get elected as governor of New Jersey if they made CPAC their calling card at the beginning of the day. So the governor’s now trying to embrace CPAC because he recognizes that it’s a necessary stop on the way to the Republican nomination for president, and he’s not going to miss any of those stops. And even if he has to give up time governing the state of New Jersey, he’s been continuing to go on that roadshow.
Are you suggesting that we’re going to hear a different tack from Christie now that he doesn’t have to get elected in New Jersey again in the future?
Well, he certainly no longer has the inhibitions that would normally be placed on a person who wanted to seek the approval of the 8 million people of the state of New Jersey. He’s now campaigning to audiences from New Hampshire to Iowa and beyond -- and he doesn’t really have to pay much attention to what folks in New Jersey want …
Lee Fang [at the Nation] did an investigation … arguing that Christie has increased and intensified the practice of having people from Wall Street involved in managing public employee [pension] funds, and that this has benefited well-connected people like Paul Singer. What do you make of that?
Well, I just think it’s par for the course in an administration that has sought to maximize the political benefit of everything they touch. That’s just another example.