George Washington Bridge
George Washington Bridge ()

Gov. Chris Christie’s chief spokesman told a New Jersey legislative committee that he had no role in or prior knowledge of what he called the “strange, unusual and idiotic” episode called Bridgegate.

“I would like to know what they hoped to accomplish,” Michael Drewniak said of Christie aides and confidantes who witnesses and documents place at the center of the scheme to clog Fort Lee traffic. He added that he felt a “deep betrayal.”

Drewniak, one of the most visible members of the Christie administration, was the third person to appear before the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation. Its members have not suggested he played an active role in the closures of local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge last Sept. 9-13, but want to know what he did after learning they may have been political retaliation against Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie for re-election.

Drewniak insisted that he believed for some time that the closures were part of a traffic study—the explanation given by David Wildstein, who ordered them as director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He resigned late last year.

Responding to questions by the committee’s vice chairman, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, Drewniak said he initially paid no real attention to the closures because they seemed trivial, even though the traffic jams drew widespread media coverage.

It was not until several days after the lanes were reopened, he said, that he first heard about political retaliation when a reporter at The Wall Street Journal told him about “scuttlebutt” she had heard about the real reason.

At that point, Drewniak said, he went to see Bridget Kelly, then Christie’s deputy chief of staff. It was later revealed that her notorious email, saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” prompted the lane closures.

“She was kind of back-of-the hand dismissive,” he said. “Then she said she had to leave to pick up her kids. It was a total brush-off.”

Drewniak testified that even then, he found the traffic study explanation plausible, though he thought it was “odd” that The Wall Street Journal would be calling him about something “kind of minor.”

As news stories continued through November, Drewniak said he brought up the matter with Christie’s chief counsel, Charles McKenna, who said officials were looking into it. “He said it was the silly season of politics.”

Drewniak said he continued to believe the traffic-study explanation even after a Dec. 4 dinner at which Wildstein told him that Kelly and Christie’s former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, knew about the traffic study.

Christie fired Kelly in January and forced Stepien to step down as head of the state Republican Party.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, the committee’s other co-chair, asked Drewniak why he discounted the theory about political retaliation during the weeks leading up to the election.

“There was the perception that it was being ginned up” by Democrats, he said. “So that had a role in the coloring and thinking of people.”

Weinberg asked Drewniak what he thought about the events now.

“I don’t know what to believe about Bridget Kelly or David Wildstein,” he replied. “It’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. Even you looked for alternate theories because this was so bizarre. It’s a mystery to me to this day.”

Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, D-Gloucester, returned to Drewniak’s Dec. 4 dinner with Wildstein.

“Did you ever lean over and ask, ‘What the hell’s going on here?’” Moriarty said.

“Yes,” Drewniak responded. “He was apologetic about how badly it was handled, but he was insistent about it being a traffic study.”

At that dinner, Drewniak said, Wildstein told him that he had advised Christie about the traffic study at a Sept. 11 memorial event. Christie has said he didn’t remember the conversation.

Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, D-Camden, said he believed the lane closures were Wildstein’s idea but asked Drewniak whether he thought Wildstein had the authority to order them.

Drewniak’s lawyer, Anthony Iacullo of Clifton’s Iacullo Martini, interrupted and said Drewniak did not work at the Port Authority and should not speculate.

Greenwald asked whether Wildstein would have to go up a chain of command to Port Authority Assistant Executive Director William Baroni to get approval to close the lanes.

“Baroni acknowledged that he was aware and authorized David to do that,” Drewniak said.

Baroni, a former Republican state senator, also resigned his position.

Neither Kelly nor Stepien are cooperating with the investigation, asserting their Fifth Amendment privilege. Wildstein provided the committee with documents—chiefly texts and emails discussing the affair.

Contact the reporter at mbooth@alm.com.