People who know New Jersey politics know who Michael Drewniak is.
A spokesperson for Gov. Chris Christie (R) going back to Christie’s days as a U.S. attorney, Drewniak is known for “routinely [channeling] his boss’s invective,” as The Newark Star-Ledger put it recently. In 2009, when he was still the spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey and a registered Democrat, the website PolitickerNJ wrote about Drewniak’s “testicular fortitude” in attending Christie’s gubernatorial campaign kick-off event.
“We are not required to act like cloistered drones when it comes to the political process,” Drewniak told the website at the time.
Thanks to the release last week of thousands of pages of documents connected to the George Washington Bridge lane closures, many people outside New Jersey politics have now learned who Drewniak is, too, while also learning a few things about his use of invective.
“Fuck him and the [Star-Ledger],” Drewniak wrote in an email on Nov. 27 to former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive David Wildstein, after hearing that the Star-Ledger editorial board would call for subpoenas to be issued in the scandal.
While other close Christie aides — former deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly and former campaign manager Bill Stepien — lost their jobs over their presence in the documents, Drewniak is still on the job. Just what role he played in the scandal is unclear. (Drewniak did not respond to a request for comment.) Emails Drewniak exchanged with Wildstein in December, in the days leading up to Wildstein’s announced resignation from the Port Authority, remain one of the more enigmatic aspects of this still enigmatic story.
Let’s pause here to set the stage a little. By early December, Democrats in New Jersey had already spent months suggesting that the lane closures in September, which led to a massive traffic jam in the town of Fort Lee, N.J., had been orchestrated as political payback against the town’s mayor, a Democrat who had declined to endorse Christie’s re-election campaign. Another Christie ally at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, had by that time appeared before state lawmakers and said that Wildstein had ordered the closures. At the same hearing, Baroni maintained that the lanes had been closed as part of a traffic study.
A final piece of background information: Wildstein and Drewniak appear to have a longtime friendly relationship. The 2009 PolitickerNJ article that mentioned Drewniak’s “testicular fortitude” was written by Wally Edge — which was the pseudonym Wildstein used when he ran the website.
Now back to the mysterious emails. On Dec. 3, a week after the Baroni hearing, Wildstein and Drewniak traded emails in the morning after Wildstein asked for a transcript a Christie’s comments at a press conference that week, the one were the governor joked about “working the cones” during the lane closures. Wildstein said he needed the remarks for a “board meeting.” Later in the day, Wildstein forwarded an email to Drewniak from a Port Authority spokesperson. The subject was a request from the editorial page editor of the Star-Ledger, who wanted to talk to the Port Authority for an upcoming editorial about the closures. At 9:22 p.m., Drewniak replied to Wildstein, who had forwarded the email from his personal Gmail account to Drewniak’s own Gmail account.
“I did see this earlier,” Drewniak wrote. “Tom will be in full righteous rage, no doubt.”
At 10:51 p.m., Wildstein replied.
“Need to talk to you soon, in person, once you get caught up and have some time,” he wrote.
Drewniak did not respond until the next morning.
“Sounds a little ominous,” Christie’s spokesman wrote to Wildstein at 7:54 a.m. on Dec. 4. “Okay. Urgent for today? Could possibly meet in New Brunswick. Or tomorrow.”
Two minutes later, Wildstein wrote back, sounding more casual.
“Not urgent for today, just want to be on the radar screen sometime in the next week or two,” he wrote.
But Drewniak had a slot open for that night.
“Can you do dinner in New Brunswick this evening?” he wrote at 8:15 a.m. “Everyone here is leaving early for meetings at Drum and it looks quiet on the press front.”
“Sure as long as short notice doesn’t inconvenience you,” Wildstein replied at 8:35 a.m.
“Yeah, same here,” Drewniak wrote at 8:39 a.m.
“Ok let me know what time and where,” Wildstein wrote at 8:40 a.m. “And acknowledge that it’s my turn to buy.”
At 11:57 p.m. that night, and presumably after dinner, Wildstein sent an email to the personal accounts of both Drewniak and David Samson, the chairman of the Port Authority. The email contained the text of an Associated Press article quoting Port Authority Police Department union chief Paul Nunziato, who denied rumors that the lane closures were political revenge.
On the morning of Dec. 5, Wildstein and Drewniak exchanged cordial emails referencing the previous night’s dinner.
“Thanks again for all your sound advice last night, I always appreciate your friendship,” Wildstein wrote to Drewniak on Dec. 5 at 8:26 a.m. “Spoke with O’Toole this morning and he will talk with you later today.”
“Same to you, David, and thanks a great dinner,” Drewniak replied, half an hour later.
Then, just a few hours later, at 12:43 p.m., Wildstein sent another email to Drewniak. This one contained an attachment: a letter that Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich sent to Baroni in 2010 — three years before the lane closures — complaining about how easy it was for traffic to become snarled in his town. Traffic jams would occur almost anytime there was a crash or construction on the bridge, the mayor wrote. He was asking for the Port Authority’s help.
“This is the letter I referred to,” Wildstein wrote. “[N]ote paragraph 2, page 3 — ‘…we find ourselves with no alternative other than to direct the Chief of Police to completely close off our local roads over which we maintain exclusive jurisdiction to avoid Fort Lee becoming a parking lot in the future and thereby require all vehicles to remain on the major approach thoroughfares (i.e. Route 46, Route 4, Route 80, I-95, etc.) and not otherwise meander through our local thoroughfares which cause safety concerns (especially for children) and complete traffic shut-down for all our residents,'” Wildstein wrote.
It is not clear from the released documents whether Drewniak ever replied.
The next day, Dec. 6, Wildstein announced his resignation from the Port Authority, saying the lane closures had “become a distraction, and I’m going to move on.” The documents show Wildstein and Drewniak also exchanged emails on Dec. 6. The subject was the wording of Drewniak’s statement to the press acknowledging Wildstein’s “service to the people of New Jersey and the region.”