One of the key players in a scandal surrounding Chris Christie accused the New Jersey governor on Friday of lying about his role.
David Wildstein, a former Christie appointee who presided over the George Washington Bridge lane closures at the center of the controversy, said through a letter from his attorney that “evidence exists … tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the Governor stated publicly.”
Christie’s office denied the accusation.
Wildstein is the first Christie ally to publicly question the governor’s account, and his claim could further damage Christie as he tries to restore his image amid aggressive investigations by Democratic lawmakers and a federal prosecutor.
Also Friday, Bill Stepien, a longtime political adviser to Christie, said he would refuse to testify before the state legislative committee investigating the episode — raising the possibility that more damaging information could emerge.
Wildstein, who attended the same high school as Christie, was appointed by Christie to a position at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
In September, Wildstein and another of Christie’s top appointees at the Port Authority ordered the lane closures, causing four days of gridlock in Fort Lee, N.J. apparently as retribution against the town’s mayor for not endorsing Christie for reelection. Wildstein resigned in December.
“Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the Governor made about him and he could prove the accuracy of some,” wrote his attorney, Alan Zegas.
Wildstein gave almost no details about what he is asserting is untrue in Christie’s accounts. And he said nothing about what the important evidence is, or who has it.
That made it hard to judge what role Wildstein’s letter — first reported by The New York Times — would play in the investigations.
In rejecting Wildstein’s accusations, a Christie aide said:
“Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer confirms what the Governor has said all along — he had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened and whatever Mr. Wildstein’s motivations were for closing them to begin with.”
The aide added: “As the Governor said in a December 13th press conference, he only first learned lanes were closed when it was reported by the press and as he said in a January 9th press conference, had no indication that this was anything other than a traffic study until he read otherwise the morning of January 8th. The Governor denies Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer’s other assertions.”
During a news conference in January, Christie said he had only recently learned that the closures had been ordered by his administration.
“I had no knowledge of this — of the planning, the execution or anything about it — and that I first found out about it after it was over,” Christie said then. Even when he found out about it, he said then, “what I was told was that it was a traffic study.”
Christie’s supporters were quick Friday to rally behind the governor, a possible Republican presidential hopeful. Anthony Carbonetti, a Republican consultant and Christie’s longtime friend, said Wildstein’s letter was “not a smoking gun.”
“If he had a smoking gun, he would have immunity already,” Carbonetti said. “Wildstein’s letter does not contradict Christie and it’s the work of someone who is trying to get his legal bills paid.”
Last month, Wildstein pleaded the Fifth Amendment when he appeared with Zegas before a state assembly hearing about the traffic snarl.
In a January interview, Zegas told The Washington Post that Wildstein is eager to share fresh information, as long as state and federal prosecutors grant him immunity.
“My client is willing to speak freely if he is conferred immunity,” Zegas said. “If he is granted immunity, he will fully cooperate. In the meantime, he intends to fully comply with his legal obligations, and we will voluntarily supply more documents without redactions.”
Wildstein and Christie both attended Livingston High School in northern New Jersey, with Wildstein graduating in 1979 and Christie in 1980. The school was enormous – about 600 students per class – and the two were vastly different. Christie was the hyper-social class president, and Wildstein an introvert. “We didn’t travel in the same circles in high school,” Christie said in his January press conference.
But the two students had one overlapping interest.
“They both were associated with the baseball team at the same time, Chris as a player, David as a statistician,” said Tony Hope, a coach at Livingston in those years.
But, Hope said, Wildstein’s role with the team was mainly limited to watching games from the stands. “There was no friendship of Chris Christie and David Wildstein during their high school days,” Hope said. “A casual acquaintance, at best.”
In recent interviews, several of Christie’s fellow players also said they did not recall Wildstein and Christie being close. “I think he was the manger or the assistant manager of the team. He used to travel. But I never saw him and Chris hanging out,” said Mike Inga, a former player now living in San Diego. “It definitely wasn’t somebody that he would consider a friend.”
The flurry of activity Friday created a fresh distraction for Christie, who has been busy with preparations for Sunday’s Super Bowl, which will be held in East Rutherford, N.J.
He was undeterred Friday night, however, appearing at Howard Stern’s birthday party in New York City and introducing rock star Jon Bon Jovi. Pictures on Twitter showed Christie, clad in a suit, grasping a microphone as he addressed the glitzy crowd.
“Happy birthday, Howard,” Christie said, according to an account in the Newark Star-Ledger. “I’m here to bring all praise from New Jersey to Howard Stern.”