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Monday, January 13, 2014

As Christie Faces New Questions, State Lawmakers Expand Investigation

From left, Assemblymen Lou D. Greenwald, John S. Wisniewski and Vincent Prieto at a news conference Monday in Trenton announcing a new special legislative committee to investigate the traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge.Mel Evans/Associated Press From left, Assemblymen Lou D. Greenwald, John S. Wisniewski and Vincent Prieto at a news conference Monday in Trenton announcing a new special legislative committee to investigate the traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge.

As Gov. Chris Christie prepared to deliver his annual State of the State address on Tuesday, he faced new questions just days after he dismissed two aides, including his longtime political adviser Bill Stepien, in a political payback scandal that involved manufacturing a huge traffic jam last September at the George Washington Bridge.

While Mr. Christie may be using his speech to outline his legislative agenda for the coming year, New Jersey state legislative leaders announced Monday that they would create new special investigative committees with a special counsel to look into what prompted the toll lane closings at the bridge in Fort Lee and who was involved.

“We need the combined expertise and experience of the Senate and the Assembly to get to the bottom of this,” said Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat whose district includes Fort Lee and who was among those who initially challenged the Port Authority to explain the closings.

In addition to promises of a deeper investigation into the bridge scandal, federal officials are also examining whether Mr. Christie improperly used Hurricane Sandy relief funds to produce tourism ads starring him and his family during an election year.

A “Stronger Than the Storm” television commercial produced with Gov. Chris Christie and his family that is being questioned by federal officials.

And my colleague Kate Zernike looks at new publicly disclosed documents that show the Christie administration aggressively courting Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City, and then canceling a series of meetings after he informed them that he would not be endorsing Mr. Christie for governor.

It is unclear whether the newly created legislative committees will explore other examples of possible retribution by the Christie administration or focus exclusively on the bridge traffic scandal.

During a nearly two-hour news conference last week, Governor Christie repeatedly apologized about the incident and denied that he knew anything about his aides being involved in closing toll lanes that spawned traffic tie-ups for several days.

Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, a Democrat who is the incoming Speaker of the Assembly, said Monday that he was committed to continuing the investigation with a newly formed Assembly committee with subpoena power and a special counsel.

Leading the effort will be Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, a Democrat, who has been conducting the investigation into the bridge scandal since last fall for the Transportation Committee. With subpoena power, the committee interviewed officials and found thousands of pages of email and text messages that included exchanges between Christie administration officials and Port Authority officials about the traffic jam.

The chain of email exchanges begins with an Aug. 13 message from Bridget Anne Kelly, deputy chief of staff to Mr. Christie before she was fired last week, writing to David Wildstein, a Christie ally at the Port Authority: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

Mr. Wildstein, who resigned from the Port Authority last fall, responded, “Got it.” He and another top Port Authority official resigned last fall after they testified before the Transportation Committee.

“We have made great strides in finding out what actually happened here with this threat to public safety and abuse of power, but so many questions remain unanswered,” said Mr. Wisniewski, a Democrat from Middlesex County. “The evidence that has come out in recent weeks makes clear that this now goes above and beyond a transportation issue and goes into the highest ranks of the executive branch. A concerted and focused investigation with increased resources is now needed, and I look forward to continuing to uncover answers for the people of New Jersey with these new tools at hand. This investigation will continue with increased intensity.”

Senator Weinberg said the unanswered questions had multiplied. “This involves the abuse of power, risks to public safety, harm to interstate commerce and a possible cover-up,” she said. “We need to combine the resources of both houses of the Legislature to get to the full truth. Senate President Sweeney and I will work with the Assembly leadership to form a joint committee in the new legislative session to pursue all aspects of this case.”

In a statement, Steve Sweeney, the Senate president, said Ms. Weinberg would lead the bipartisan Senate effort, which will also have subpoena power.

“There are still more questions than answers, and we cannot rest until we know exactly what happened in Fort Lee,” Mr. Sweeney said. “We plan to work collaboratively with our Assembly colleagues and the committee they have created to get to the bottom of this as soon as possible.”