NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New Jersey Democrat leading a probe of a bridge traffic scandal that has engulfed Governor Chris Christie said on Sunday he had seen no evidence to support claims that the governor had been aware of the politically motivated traffic jams as they happened.
If such evidence does exist, a state panel investigating the closures has not yet seen it, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who co-leads the probe, said on Sunday.
Christie, a leading Republican candidate for the White House in 2016, has repeatedly denied any knowledge of a plan to snarl traffic last September near the busy George Washington Bridge and severed ties with several top aides over their role in the incident.
Christie has been dogged by scandal for nearly a month after it emerged that several of his top aides and appointees called for lane closures leading to the busiest bridge in the United States, apparently as retribution against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who did not endorse the governor’s re-election campaign.
Christie has repeatedly denied having any knowledge of the scheme and dismissed two of his top aides for their roles in it.
Still, the scandal has hurt his image and recent polls show him losing ground as a potential presidential contender.
On Friday, David Wildstein, the Christie appointee at the agency overseeing the bridge who personally oversaw the lane closures, said “evidence exists” Christie had knowledge of the blockage when it happened.
“We don’t really know what the evidence is,” Wisniewski told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “He (Wildstein) submitted over 900 pages of documents in response to the subpoena. Apparently what he’s talking about must be something other than what he submitted.”
Wildstein resigned from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey late last year amid the growing probe.
Wisniewski also said he was unclear from Wildstein’s choice of words that “evidence exists” that Christie was aware of the closures.
“The use of the words ‘evidence exists,’ as opposed to saying, ‘I have documents,’ or, ‘I have an e-mail,’ it’s a curious choice of words,” Wisniewski said. “Maybe this is something else that is not within the scope of the subpoena the committee issued. So it raises questions about what does he have and why doesn’t the committee have it?”
The legislator also said that no evidence exists linking Christie to the decision to close the lanes, nor was there indication he knew about the plan as it happened.
The closures caused four days of headaches for commuters around Fort Lee, at the New Jersey side of the bridge. It also slowed school buses and emergency vehicles.
Colin Reed, a spokesman for the governor, did not comment directly on Wisniewski’s comments, but reasserted Christie’s stance that he had no knowledge of the lane closures.
Wildstein’s attorney did not respond to Reuters request for comment.
Meanwhile, the investigation of who else might have been involved in the bridge lane closures was continuing, with nearly two dozen subpoenas issued to New Jersey officials, many of them in Christie’s inner circle.
“As early as tomorrow (Monday), we hope to be starting to get responses to the subpoenas,” Wisniewski said.
The state probes are running parallel to an investigation announced last month by U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman.
As Sunday’s Super Bowl puts 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 says, 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.”
The scandal has tarnished Christie’s reputation as a politician ready to reach across the aisle at a time when partisan gridlock has defined Washington.
It has also impacted his approval ratings. Support for the governor, which soared over his handling of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, has fallen almost 20 points since his landslide re-election in November, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released last month. Christie’s approval rating among New Jersey voters, at 65 percent just before he was re-elected last year, dipped to 46 percent, the poll indicated.
Reporting By Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Scott Malone and Dan Grebler