Kevin O'Dowd
Kevin O’Dowd (Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s chief of staff avowed Monday that he had no knowledge of Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly’s involvement in last fall’s suspect George Washington Bridge access lane closures until it became public.

In testimony before the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation, Kevin O’Dowd said that he first learned of Kelly’s possible role in December, after Christie complained that the “noise” about the closures was becoming “a distraction.”

O’Dowd said Christie told him during a Dec. 12 meeting at Drumthwacket, the official governor’s residence, to ask Kelly about her role. That afternoon, O’Dowd said, he asked her directly whether she was involved and she said, “Absolutely not.” When she inquired why he was asking, he told her it was at Christie’s behest, O’Dowd said.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, the committee’s co-chair, asked O’Dowd if he believed at that time that Kelly’s answer was credible.

“I did,” O’Dowd said. “I’d known her for four years. She was someone I believed and trusted.”

It was not until the next day, he said, that he learned from another administration official that the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, which Kelly oversaw, had received a complaint from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich complaining of the lane closures.

Kelly showed him an email from Christina Renna, the head of OGA, detailing how Sokolich had a concern that the closures were due to “government retribution” for his not joining other Democratic mayors in endorsing Christie for reelection.

A email from Kelly telling David Wildstein, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” appears to show that she and Wildstein orchestrated the lane closures.

The committee is attempting to determine when Christie learned that the closures did not involve a traffic study, as Wildstein and Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni had asserted, and whether Christie’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, knew of the true reason.

Kelly and Stepien have invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and have refused to cooperate with the committee. Wildstein has provided documents but not testimony.

O’Dowd said Christie told him on Dec. 12 in definitive terms that Stepien was not involved. Stepien, although he is refusing to cooperate with the committee’s investigation, was present at Monday’s hearing, along with his attorney, Kevin Marino of Chatham’s Marino, Tortorella & Boyle.

Christie forced Baroni and Wildstein out of their jobs at the Port Authority because of the closures, and had Stepien removed from his position as head of the New Jersey Republican Party because of the tone of his emails after the closures.

O’Dowd was accompanied by his attorney, former First Assistant Attorney General Paul Zoubek, now with the Cherry Hill office of Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads.

O’Dowd is the highest ranking member of Christie’s administration to testify before the committee. He testified for more than seven hours.

In a brief statement at the beginning of the hearing, O’Dowd denied having any personal knowledge of or involvement in the lane closures beforehand.

An investigation conducted a firm Christie hired, New York’s Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, cleared him of wrongdoing and pinned the blame for the lane closures on Kelly and Wildstein.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, the committee’s other co-chair, said there was a “curious lack of curiosity” on the part of the administration, even after numerous news stories had suggested the closures were part of political pay back and even after Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, an appointee of Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, had ordered the lanes reopened on Sept. 13 and said the closures may have violated state and federal law.

Weinberg said it appeared that no one in the administration sought to ask any questions after the allegations of retribution continued to be made.

O’Dowd maintained that he believed the story about the lane closures being tied to a traffic study but that it had been conducted poorly.

Christie and O’Dowd have insisted that they did not believe the retribution story until Jan. 8, when Kelly’s “traffic problems” email became public. He said Charles McKenna, then Christie’s chief counsel, reached out to Port Authority officials, who told him that the lanes were closed as part of a traffic study and that McKenna then related those conversations to Christie and O’Dowd.

McKenna, according to O’Dowd, said Port Authority officials told him that mistakes were made in that local officials were not properly notified of the closures in advance.

O’Dowd acknowledged that he did not contact Sokolich after learning of his concerns in December or have any member of the administration contact him.

Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, R-Bergen, asked O’Dowd if he could have done anything to stop the closures. “I don’t know how I could have done anything to stop that,” he replied.

Was there anything the governor or the administration could have done, she asked.

“That’s a difficult question,” O’Dowd said. “You work together in a close environment. You trust people.”

During the hearing, Zoubek told the committee he had instructed O’Dowd not to read the extensive attorney reports written after interviews conducted with dozens of administration officials by Gibson Dunn lawyers.

Sen. Nia Gill, D-Essex, wanted to know why. Zoubek said he believed it would be prudent for O’Dowd to “focus on his personal knowledge.”

Gill asked whether it was because O’Dowd might be called to testify with other investigations, alluding to one being conducted by a federal grand jury. Zoubek said that question was “inappropriate” and refused to answer.

Gill also noted that O’Dowd took no notes of his conversations with Kelly, nor with anyone else, regarding the lane closures. If there are no notes, there can be no subpoenas for them, she said.

O’Dowd, a former state and federal prosecutor who also is Christie’s choice to become the next state attorney general, said it was not his practice to take notes when talking to other members of the administration.

Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, D-Camden, asked O’Dowd who he thought ordered the lane closures.

O’Dowd said that because of all of the investigations being conducted, he wasn’t going to guess.

“Do you know why they were closed?” Greenwald asked.

“I don’t know,” O’Dowd replied.

It is possible that McKenna, now the executive director of the New Jersey Schools Development Authority, will be the next administration official to be subpoenaed to testify. Foye had been scheduled to testify earlier this month but his appearance has been indefinitely delayed at the request of U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman.

Wisniewski said the committee will probably not meet again until the middle of July because the staff needs to assist other lawmakers with the fiscal 2015 budget, which must be enacted by July 1, and the July 4 holiday.

Contact the reporter at mbooth@alm.com.