TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) – Gov. Chris Christie’s longtime press secretary told New Jersey lawmakers Tuesday he is confident his boss had no knowledge of or involvement in the scheme that shut traffic near the George Washington Bridge in a political payback plot.
Michael Drewniak, who has served as a spokesman for Christie since he became U.S. attorney in 2001, called the plot reckless and perplexing in an opening statement before a New Jersey legislative committee that’s investigating last September’s lane closings. Because of his position speaking for the governor, Drewniak is part of Christie’s inner circle of aides and advisers.
As CBS 2’s Kathryn Brown reported, Drewniak, known for his temper and foul mouth, remained very calm during testimony. The spokesman portrayed the governor as a man betrayed by trusted aides.
“What needs to be said right up front is that I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this strange, unnecessary and idiotic episode that brings us here today,” said Drewniak.
The scheme carried out last fall by loyalists to Christie, a Republican, has become a major distraction as he contemplates a 2016 presidential run. Christie has denied knowing about the plot.
Drewniak has survived round after round of resignations and firings with his job intact and denies any role in the decision to close the traffic lanes in Fort Lee, Brown reported.
But lawmakers want to know what he knew and when he knew it.
The scandal is the subject of at least two ongoing investigations. One is being run by the U.S. attorney’s office for New Jersey, and its scope is not entirely clear. Drewniak has testified before a federal grand jury as part of that probe, his lawyer has said.
The joint legislative investigation is being overseen by Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature. The lawmakers are also looking at whether Christie’s administration distributed federal aid for Superstorm Sandy recovery in a way that would reward political allies or punish foes.
The lawmakers’ inquest, dismissed by some Republicans as a politically motivated witch hunt, has been stymied because two key figures have refused to cooperate and a third has refused to testify. All three have cited their right not to incriminate themselves.
But the lawmakers have released reams of documents that have been provided, including the most damning statement so far, when former Christie aide Bridget Kelly sent a note to David Wildstein, then an official at the Port Authority, saying “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” a few weeks before the lane closures last year in that town.
Drewniak cited a December new conference in which Christie mocked questions by reporters about the lane closures as proof the governor knew nothing about it.
“No one would mock something as egregious as what we now know transpired because of the receipt of those emails on Jan. 8,” Drewniak said.
Drewniak also granted three interviews to lawyers hired by Christie to review the closings. Their report, issued in March and called a whitewash by many Democrats, concluded that neither Christie nor anyone in his inner circle did anything wrong.
Drewniak had a professional and social relationship with Wildstein, and the two had dinner shortly before Wildstein was forced to resign his $150,000-a-year job last year as questions grew about what happened at the foot of the bridge in the fall.
Drewniak said he was shocked when Wildstein claimed to have told the governor about the lane closings on Sept. 11 while they were still underway.
“When he threw in the governor, which I’d never heard before, I was like, ‘Now what’s this all about?'” Drewniak said.
Drewniak said Christie was “incredulous” when he told him what Wildstein said.
Drewniak himself was grilled for two hours by the Christie administration in January, after which the governor decided not to fire him.
The legislative panel heard last week from former aide Christina Renna, who worked for Kelly while the lanes were blocked. Renna described her former boss as erratic and overwhelmed but said she would not have decided to cause traffic jams without orders to do so.
Two others are scheduled to appear before the panel next month.
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