The New Jersey lawmaker leading the investigation into Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) administration told TPM on Thursday he has no plans to turn his attention to explosive allegations raised recently by the mayor of Hoboken.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D) said in an interview with TPM that his committee’s investigation into Christie’s office will remain focused, at least for now, on what it has been all along: the September lane closures on the George Washington Bridge. The committee plans to “finish its work” on the bridge before moving on to anything else, he said.
“As I can see it now, there’s no direct connection to the work we’re doing that stems out of the GWB incident and that Hoboken incident,” Wisniewski said. “It is very unlikely that the committee will make any kind of pivot to that issue while we’re still working on where the GWB issue takes us.”
For weeks, Christie’s administration has been embroiled in scandal amid accusations that it ordered lanes on the bridge to be closed to force a traffic jam in the town of Fort Lee, N.J., which sits at the foot of the bridge. Some Democrats have alleged the closures came as political payback against Fort Lee’s mayor, who declined to endorse Christie’s re-election campaign.
Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer then added to Christie’s woes last month when she alleged that members of the governor’s administration threatened to withhold hurricane relief money unless she approved a real estate project.
Federal prosecutors have launched an investigation into both sets of allegations, but so far state lawmakers have focused solely on the bridge.
Wisniewski gave the scandal a giant push forward early last month using his powers as chairman of the Assembly transportation committee, which has oversight of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that runs the bridge. The committee had been investigating the lane closures for months when it uncovered documents showing one of Christie’s closest aides had written an email ahead of the lane closures remarking, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Since then, the case has drawn widespread attention and Wisniewski has been tapped to co-chair a special investigative committee with members from both the Assembly and the Senate. The committee was granted broad authority to investigate “any other matter raising concerns about abuse of government … including, but not limited to” the lane closures.
Because of that language, Wisniewski was asked last month whether the committee would investigate the Hoboken allegations. At the time, he did not rule it out.
“We can’t predict what other information will come before the committee,” he said on Jan. 27.
However, in his interview with TPM, Wisniewski clarified the committee was given the powers only in order to allow it to pursue that initial inquiry wherever it might lead.
“This started out about the Port Authority and the bridge. … Everybody ought to be very clear that this is still about the Port Authority. You know, we happen to be looking at the governor’s office, not because we thought it would be a fun thing to do, but that’s where the information led us,” said Wisniewski. “We don’t know where it will lead us next. That’s one of the reasons why the authority for the committee was drawn so broadly, you know, maybe it goes into a state agency, maybe it goes somewhere else. We didn’t want to be in a position where every time we crossed a new threshold we’d have to go back to the full Legislature.”
Still, Wisniewski added that Zimmer’s claims may have merit.
“I know they’re being looked into by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. They’ve asked the mayor not to say anything more about it, so clearly not only does she think they’re serious, but other people think theyre serious,” Wisniewski said.
Some of Wisniewski’s Republican colleagues have criticized the investigation into the lane closures as a partisan “witch hunt.” Asked to respond to what he described as “constant allegations of partisanship,” Wisniewski insisted he is merely following the facts.
“This is about an abuse of power, the attempt to cover up that abuse of power, and the efforts to rectify that abuse of power and restore trust. It’s really that simple,” he said. “For the partisans on the committee or outside the committee who continually talk about this being a witch hunt, I didn’t write the email that said, ‘It’s time for traffic problems in Fort Lee.’ It came out of the governor’s office from one of his senior staff members.”
Prior to the scandal surrounding the closures, Christie had long enjoyed a uniquely cordial relationship with Democrats in his state. But Wisniewski said he has had past “disagreement” with both the governor and politicians in his own party.
“I’m not going to characterize what other Democrats do other than to say that I disagree with some of the positions they’ve taken,” said Wisniewski. “I’ll leave it to them to explain their positions if necessary.”
Wisniewski said he is also used to battling the governor. He described their relationship prior to the investigation as “not a relationship in which I was the recipient of frequent birthday cards or phone calls.”
“I was the state Democratic chairman for three-and-a-half years and my job was to take issue with the policies that the administration put forward,” he said. “Ironically enough, I find myself in a position today of being called a fierce partisan leading this fight and, when I was state chair, I was criticized as being not partisan enough.”
Despite being at the head of the investigation, Wisniewski said he doesn’t have a theory about the reason the lane closures were ordered. Yet he clearly thinks something is rotten in Trenton.
“Maybe there was a political beef between the mayor of Fort Lee and the governor. Maybe there were other issues at stake,” Wisniewski said. “But to deliberately inconvenience everybody from Fort Lee … whether they were going to work, to school, to a job interview, to the hospital. … It makes you shudder to think that, if you accept the governor’s word that he had no idea, then God help us. What else has been going on that he doesn’t know about? Because, if his staff thought that it was OK to do this, what else did they think that it was OK to do?”