TRENTON, New Jersey (Reuters) - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s spokesman testified on Tuesday that he was misled by fellow officials about the purpose of a major traffic disruption apparently used to retaliate against a political foe, and called the episode “shocking and disorienting.”
Michael Drewniak, Christie’s long-time press secretary, appeared for the first time before a legislative panel in Trenton that is looking into the September incident, which occurred in the midst of Christie’s successful re-election campaign, and why the apparent abuse of power was able to occur.
The incident has been deeply embarrassing for Christie, a prominent Republican mulling a possible 2016 run for the White House, although the governor has emphatically denied he had any involvement in or knowledge of it.
The shutdown over four days of access lanes connecting Fort Lee, New Jersey, and the George Washington Bridge, the busiest span in the country, caused massive traffic tie-ups, delaying school buses, ambulances and commuters trying to enter New York City.
The plan was apparently orchestrated by two former Christie appointees in an effort to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie’s re-election.
One of those aides, Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s ex-deputy chief of staff, sent a now-infamous email saying “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Drewniak told the panel he was blindsided by this “strange, unnecessary and idiotic episode that brought us here today,” and felt betrayed by both Kelly and David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which manages the bridge.
Drewniak said Wildstein, whom he considered a friend, had assured him the tie-ups were due to a legitimate traffic study. Drewniak said he was unaware of the disruptions in Fort Lee, or allegations the lane closures were punitive, until he began receiving media inquires about the “Bridgegate” scandal.
Under grilling by lawmakers about why he had not taken more seriously ongoing questions about the incident, Drewniak said he believed the allegations were the work of an overzealous media and Democratic opponents.
“He (Wildstein) took advantage of my wanting to believe in him for all the right reasons,” Drewniak said. “The disappointment that I was dealing with someone that could conduct such a thing... I was embarrassed by it.”
Both Wildstein and Kelly have left their government jobs, and neither has addressed the incident publicly.
Drewniak said he met Wildstein for dinner last December as the Port Authority official came under pressure to resign amid the growing controversy.
At that dinner, Wildstein “was apologetic about how badly it was handled,” but never admitted the scheme was politically motivated, Drewniak said.
“He said ‘I created this whole idea for a traffic study, but I let others know about it,'” Drewniak said. “My clear impression was that he wanted me to take this back to the administration, he wanted to stay on, and also if there was a presidential run, he wanted to be part of that.”
An investigation commissioned by the governor’s office in March blamed the shutdown plan entirely on Wildstein and Kelly. But Democratic lawmakers have rejected that review as incomplete.
Federal prosecutors have also opened probes into the Bridgegate matter.
The executive director of the Port Authority, Patrick Foye, was also scheduled to testify Tuesday but rescheduled his appearance for June.
Editing by Edith Honan and Ken Wills