New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the official who ordered the closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge last year clashed Friday over precisely when Christie learned about the controversial incident.
In a letter to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (.pdf), a lawyer for David Wildstein — the Port Authority official who actually ordered the event — says "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 in a two-hour press conference."
In a statement Friday afternoon, Christie's office said that rather than call Christie's behavior into question, the letter "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."
Christie's statement goes on to say he denies "Mr. Wildstein's lawyer's other assertions," which primarily have to do with Wildstein's attempt to force the Port Authority to pay his legal bills.
The main disagreement appears to stem from the sequence of events.
In his statement Friday, Christie said he didn't know about what's come to be known as "Bridgegate" beforehand. In his Jan. 9 news conference — the one Wildstein alludes to — he said that "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 doubled down on that assertion late Friday night. In a statement issued to "clear up any lingering confusion," a spokesman said, "Governor Christie has said each time he has been asked that he first learned about the closing of the lanes on the George Washington Bridge from press accounts after the instance was over."
It's that second contention that Wildstein contradicts in his letter, saying flat-out that Christie knew about the incident as it was jamming traffic between New York and New Jersey from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12.
"Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the Governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some," the letter says — although it gives no hint of what that evidence might be.
Wildstein's letter was first reported Friday by The New York Times and subsequently obtained by NBC News.
Christie — who's considered a serious contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination — has repeatedly denied having ordered the closing of two of three local access lanes from Fort Lee, N.J., to the bridge, which is one of the busiest in the world. The closing froze traffic for four days — allegedly in retaliation over the mayor's refusal to endorse him in the 2013 governor's race.
It's the latest piece in a puzzle that has been emerging over the past few months of Christie as a swaggering political bully.
Emails came to light early this month revealing the involvement of Christie aides in closing the bridge lanes, ostensibly so that the study of traffic patterns could be conducted. But the emails indicated that the action was actually aimed at Fort Lee Mayor Chris Sokolich over his refusal to endorse Christie for re-election, which he easily won in November.
Then, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer said she had met with investigators and had turned over documents alleging that two Christie Cabinet members threatened to withhold relief aid for reconstruction after Hurricane Sandy unless she approved a redevelopment project favored by the governor. A spokesman for Zimmer told NBC News on Friday that the U.S. attorney for New Jersey had served a subpoena on the city for documents relating to those allegations.
Numerous other state and federal agencies are investigating Bridgegate, and 17 allies of Christie — as well as the governor’s office and his 2013 re-election campaign — have been ordered to hand over documents related to the scandal by Monday.
At least four Christie associates have resigned, have been fired or have had their ties to the governor cut, including Wildstein.
"These are serious accusations, and they certainly add to the speculation people have about the governor," said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the Democratic co-chairman of the legislative committee investigating the bridge scandal.
Wisniewski said on MSNBC's "Hardball" that Wildstein was among those who'd been served subpoenas, but he urged caution, saying the narrow wording of the subpoena could have allowed Wildstein to legally withhold crucial documents.
"I don't know what these documents are that Mr. Wildstein or his attorney say that contradict the governor," he said.
But other Democrats wasted little time jumping on the new accusation Friday.
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said the latest bombshell might have sunk Christie's presidential ambitions.
"It certainly seems Wildstein's attorney is suggesting the governor was not telling the truth," Pallone said on MSNBC's "PoliticsNation."
"There's so much coming out," he said. "All of these things are making it more and more difficult for Governor Christie to run."
In a statement, Mo Elleithee, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said Christie has "repeatedly said that he had no knowledge of the lane closures. Today's revelations raise serious questions about whether that is true."
"I know it's Super Bowl weekend and Chris Christie doesn't want to talk about anything but the game, but it looks like he's going to need to change his plans," Elleithee said.
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