N.J. bridge panel to hear more testimony, Republicans ponder alternative theory

Monday, May 19, 2014 - 10:23am

 A New Jersey legislative committee investigating the orchestrated lane closures at the George Washington Bridge will hear more testimony on Tuesday.

Matt Mowers, a former campaign staffer for Gov. Chris Christie who now heads the New Hampshire GOP, will be the third person to testify under oath in Trenton as lawmakers look into allegations of abuse of authority.

While the committee already heard from Christie's spokesman Michael Drewniak and former staffer Christina Renna, committee members are no closer to learning who gave the order to realign lanes at the toll plaza than they were before they began hearing testimony.

That has Republican members of the committee frustrated over the investigation's pace and process.

"We've spent uncounted millions of dollars and uncounted hours to secure documents and testimony of people who clearly were not involved," said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, one of four Republicans on the joint bipartisan committee.

Schepisi complains that Democrats who lead the committee are calling on people who have no knowledge of the execution of the lane closures or what precipitated the realignment.

"What are we going to find out from Matt Mowers? He has said he has no knowledge with respect to what happened," Schepisi said.

"We will not rush to judgment," said Assemblyman John Wisniewksi, Democratic co-chair of the Select Committee on Investigation. "We will continue to work methodically and deliberatively until we are confident we have a clear understanding of how this abuse of power came to happen...and are able to assure the public that it will never happen again."

Wisniewski pointed out that the committee has heard from only two people so far, yet the hearings already "produced testimony that undermines the credibility of the governor's own report on the lane closures and the governor's statements about when he first learned about his administration's involvement."

Republican members of the committee are pressing Wisniewksi and Democratic co-chair state Sen. Loretta Weinberg to subpoena people who were working at the bridge when the lane closures took place in September. Schepisi also wants the committee to hear from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich. The mayor, a Democrat, questioned whether the traffic jam in his town was created because he wouldn't endorse Christie's re-election campaign.

But Schepisi has an alternative theory. She points to an email that Mayor Sokolich sent to former Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, a Christie appointee, pleading for help with gridlock in Fort Lee. As he asked for Port Authority police to man intersections in his town Sokolich wrote on November 9th, 2010 that if they didn't get some help from the agency, "we find ourselves with no other alternative other than to direct the Chief of Police to completely close off our local roads" to traffic from outside Fort Lee heading to the George Washington Bridge.

"This is an action that I would rather not take; however, we find ourselves with no other alternative," wrote Sokolich.

Schepisi wonders if this email is one of many in a prolonged exchange that turned into a tit-for-tat with David Wildstein of the Port Authority, the alleged architect of the lane closures, ultimately taking action against Sokolich out of some sort of personal animus.

"How many conversations were had prior to and after this letter between the Port Authority and Fort Lee to discuss these traffic issues?" asked Schepisi.

Emails from the Port Authority's chief traffic engineer and others at the agency show that in August they were making plans for a lane realignment at the toll plaza.

Republican members of the committee believe the only way they'll get the answers they seek is if they hear from Sokolich and people who were working at the bridge at the time.

Wisniewksi said that many of the specific people the Republicans asked the committee to call already testified under oath at the end of last year and that testimony is part of the public record. As for Sokolich, Wisniewksi said the mayor is a victim of whatever happened, and while they may speak to him in the future "he can only offer speculation about what happened and how."

The committee may never find out who gave the order to close the lanes and why because Wildstein and Christie's former deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly have invoked their Fifth Amendment rights. The two had a now-infamous email exchange in which Kelly wrote, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," and Wildstein replied, "Got it."

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