George Washington Bridge
George Washington Bridge ()

A former member of Gov. Chris Christie’s administration gave testimony Tuesday that painted an unflattering portrait of his fired deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, who allegedly initiated last fall’s closures of George Washington Bridge local access lanes.

Christina Renna, the first Christie staffer to appear before the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation, said Kelly, though instrumental in the Sept. 9-13 lane closures, could not have been the “architect.”

During five hours of testimony, Renna, the former head of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs in the governor’s office, insisted she herself had no knowledge of the closures before they occurred nor had any knowledge of who might have ordered them.

But she spoke about how Kelly may have been involved in the closures, which some sources have alleged were in retaliation for Fort Lee’s mayor not supporting Christie for reelection.

Among other revelations, Renna said she had emailed Kelly on Sept. 12 to tell her that the mayor, Mark Sokolich, had called an IGA staffer to express how upset and disturbed he was by the traffic jams caused by the closures. Renna said that Kelly replied, “Good.”

Renna said Kelly called her Dec. 12, after the scandal had made national headlines, and discussed the email. “She was nervous and erratic,” Renna said. “She was talking in circles and I had a hard time following her.”

Renna said Kelly asked her to delete the email from her Google account. “Do me a favor and get rid of it,” Renna quoted Kelly as saying. Renna said she did so but not before forwarding a copy to another account she maintained.

When the committee co-chair, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, asked her why, Renna said she was uncomfortable with deleting the email altogether. “If it came up again I wanted to be able to tell her in good faith that I deleted it,” she said.

Renna, who resigned in January, painted an unflattering portrait of Kelly, calling her “insecure,” “enormously stressed out by day-to-day life” and someone who “could be a little difficult to work with” and who, on occasion, she would have to “placate.” Renna said they were once fairly close but had a falling out for reasons she did not know.

Renna also spoke about the IGA’s role in getting endorsements for Christie during the gubernatorial campaign.

She distanced herself from comments made by attorneys at New York’s Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the firm retained by Christie to conduct an internal investigation into the lane closures. The firm’s interview notes attributed to Renna a statement that the IGA kept a “hands-off list” of mayors that were not to be contacted, supposedly because they did not support Christie for reelection. But Renna told the committee there was no such list.

Under questioning from the other co-chair, Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, Renna acknowledged IGA staffers worked on soliciting endorsements from Democratic mayors but said it was done on their own time at night and on weekends, and was not part of their on-the-job duties.

Weinberg asked Renna about a directive she received on Jan. 13 from Christie’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, that it was OK to begin to contact Democratic mayors for endorsements. “Super, super exciting,” Renna had replied.

“I wish I had chosen better words,” Renna told Weinberg. “But a lot of people were enthusiastic. It was time to get the ball rolling.”

Sen. Nia Gill, D-Essex, returned to the Sept. 12 email exchange conversation between Renna and Kelly, asking Renna why she waited until the next day to forward the email.

“I thought it was strange,” Renna said. “I had never been asked to do that before. I wanted to sleep on the request and think it over.”

“You wanted to preserve it and not tell anyone?” Gill said.

“Correct,” Renna said.

Renna said she was not aware Kelly had forwarded her original email to chief of staff Kevin O’Dowd, but without Kelly’s response, or that O’Dowd had forwarded that email to Christie.

In the afternoon, Renna teared up when Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, D-Camden, said she was a “remarkable young woman” for agreeing to come forward and testify.

Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, D-Gloucester, asked Renna whether she believed Kelly and David Wildstein, the former director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a Christie ally, orchestrated the lane closures.

“I don’t know,” Renna said.

Moriarty asked her if she had any theories and if she would share them.

“I have lots of theories,” Renna said, adding, “I’ll take a pass.”

Kelly and Stepien have refused to cooperate with the committee’s investigation, taking the Fifth Amendment. Wildstein has handed over documents but has refused to testify.

It was Kelly who, shortly before the lane closures occurred, sent Wildstein an email saying that it was “time for some traffic problems” in Fort Lee.

Renna said she and Kelly spoke on Jan. 9, the day Christie fired Kelly. Kelly, she said, was crying and said she didn’t know what she was going to do. Christie, Kelly said, refused to talk to her.

“She apologized a lot,” Renna said of Kelly. “She said, ‘You can’t trust anyone, Christina.’”

As has become the norm, the committee hearing began with a squabble between the Republican minority and the Democratic majority.

Assemblywoman Amy Handlin, R-Monmouth, noted that Patrick Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who had been subpoenaed to testify May 12, and Port Authority Commissioner William Schubert, who had been subpoenaed to testify after Renna, had rescheduled their testimony due to conflicts.

“They’re the ringleaders of the circus,” Handlin said. She described the Port Authority as a “clown operation” and presented a list of other employees she said should be subpoenaed. The Democrats tabled the motion.

Weinberg said Foye and Schubert will appear on June 3.

Sen. Kevin O’Toole, R-Passaic, said the committee should ask Acting Attorney General John Hoffman to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate leaks of subpoenas to the media. Moriarty said the idea was “preposterous” and the Democrats tabled that motion as well.

After the hearing, Wisniewski said Renna’s testimony helped illustrate “government run by intimidation.”

Contact the reporter at mbooth@alm.com.