NEW YORK (Reuters) - Top aides to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie face a deadline on Monday to reply to document subpoenas made by state lawmakers investigating a traffic scandal that has threatened the Republican governor’s political future.
Lawmakers are investigating an incident from last September, at the height of Christie’s re-election campaign, in which aides to Christie ordered access lanes from the town of Fort Lee to the busy George Washington Bridge closed, creating a massive, four-day traffic jam. The closures came after the mayor of Fort Lee, a Democrat, declined to endorse Christie’s re-election bid.
Christie, who is widely seen as a leading Republican candidate for the White House in 2016, has said he was unaware of his aides’ actions and has severed ties with several over their roles. Still, the scandal has hurt his image and polls show him losing ground as a potential presidential contender.
The Democrat-controlled state legislature has opened a probe, and has served subpoenas on Christie appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the bridge, Christie’s top aides and his re-election campaign.
The U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Paul Fishman, also has opened an investigation into the traffic jam, which slowed school buses and emergency vehicles.
The state legislature had set a Monday deadline for several of Christie’s aides to reply to subpoenas for documents. According to local media, some of the governor’s aides have requested more time to comply with the demand.
On Sunday, one of the aides served with a subpoena, Christie’s director of intergovernmental affairs, Christina Renna, said through her lawyer that she had resigned. In a statement, Renna said her departure was long planned so she could “pursue an opportunity in the private sector.”
According to publicly released records, Bridget Kelly, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, wrote to Port Authority executive David Wildstein: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein, a Christie appointee, replied: “Got it.”
Christie fired Kelly last month over her role in the incident, and Wildstein resigned his post.
In a separate email that began after the traffic jam had begun, Renna relayed complaints from the mayor of Fort Lee, whose town sits on the New Jersey side of the bridge, on to Kelly. In a September 12 email, Renna wrote that emergency responders were “having a terrible time maneuvering the traffic,” and that “there is a feeling in town that it is government retribution for something.”
While Christie has not been directly implicated in the scandal, problems continue to mount.
The Democratic mayor of Hoboken has charged that people close to the governor withheld storm aid as a condition of the city supporting a development deal. The administration has denied the charge.
Last week, David Wildstein, who personally oversaw the lane closures, told the authority “evidence exists” Christie knew about the lane closures. Wildstein resigned from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey late last year amid the growing probe.
Over the weekend, Christie’s office reasserted the governor had no knowledge of the lane closures and, in an email sent to supporters, challenged Wildstein’s credibility.
“Bottom line - David Wildstein will do and say anything to save David Wildstein,” said the email, which was posted on the political news website Politico.com and confirmed as authentic by a spokesman for the governor.
Wildstein’s lawyer, Alan Zegas, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the email.
As Sunday’s Super Bowl put New Jersey in the national spotlight, the Democratic National Committee launched an online video ad comparing Christie to a struggling football player.
“They say he’s unstoppable ... unless he chokes,” the ad intones, juxtaposing football images with video clips of news coverage of Christie, before and after the scandal broke. “It’s just the first quarter. It’s going to be a long game.”
Christie’s approval rating among New Jersey voters, at 65 percent just before he was re-elected last year, slid to 46 percent, a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released last month showed.
Additional reporting by David Jones in Newark, Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Eric Walsh