George Washington Bridge
George Washington Bridge ()

A former member of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, who unsuccessfully sought Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s endorsement of Christie’s reelection bid, told a legislative committee investigating last fall’s closure of local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge that he was “dumbfounded” that anyone would retaliate against Sokolich in such a way for his decision.

The former official, Matthew Mowers, now the executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said he was “disheartened and disappointed” by the closures, allegedly concocted by Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, and David Wildstein, the former director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge.

Mowers attempted to recruit Sokolich to join other Democratic mayors in endorsing Christie for reelection.

Sokolich, he said, was “candid” in telling him that he could not support the governor in the spring of 2013.

“No one [in the reelection campaign] seemed overly concerned at the time,” Mowers told the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation.

Mowers disclosed that he already has spent several hours discussing his actions with the committee’s special counsel, Reid Schar, of Chicago’s Jenner & Block.

Sen. Kevin O’Toole of Passaic County, the committee’s ranking Republican, unsuccessfully tried to make public a memo of the meeting written by another Jenner & Block attorney. The committee’s co-chair, Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, said releasing any memo that might exist could violate attorney-client privilege.

O’Toole said he learned of the existence of the memo after reviewing Jenner & Block’s billings to the committee. O’Toole wanted to know whether the Democratic majority on the committee had read the memo, since the Republican minority had not.

Democrats told O’Toole they had not seen anything regarding the memo.

After a brief closed-door meeting to discuss the memo, Mowers’ attorney, Craig Carpenito, said Mowers had been cooperative with Schar. Carpenito, of New York’s Alston & Bird, said it was “troubling” that the memo hadn’t been shared with members of the committee.

Mowers was allowed to give a brief opening statement before taking questions.

“I was not involved in and had no knowledge of the planning or execution of the George Washington bridge lane realignments,” Mowers told the committee.

Mowers was the third person with ties to the administration to testify before the committee. Christina Renna, a former official with the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, and Christie’s current spokesman, Michael Drewniak, both have testified that they were not involved in the Sept. 9-13 lane closures, which also are being investigated by federal prosecutors.

Responding to questions from the committee’s other co-chair, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, Mowers recounted a telephone conversation he had with Kelly, whom Christie fired in January, on Aug. 12, 2013. Kelly, he said, asked if Sokolich was going to endorse Christie.

“I said it wasn’t going to happen,” Mowers said.

Wisniewski asked what Kelly’s response was.

“She said, ‘OK. That’s all I need to know,’” Mowers replied.

A day later, Kelly sent Wildstein an email stating that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

Kelly has invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and is refusing to cooperate with the committee’s investigation. Wildstein has provided the committee with documents, including the “traffic problems” email, but has refused to testify.

Christie’s former campaign manager, William Stepien, also has invoked his Fifth Amendment rights.

Much of Tuesday’s questioning involved the interplay between the IGA office and the reelection campaign, and whether that interplay was improper.

Mowers, as did Renna, testified that administration employees volunteered for the campaign, but did so on their own time. Mowers acknowledged, however, that emails dealing with IGA work were occasionally interspersed with campaign talk.

Mowers, like Renna and Drewniak, often used private email accounts to discuss government and campaign work with other administration employees and campaign workers.

When asked why work email accounts were not used, Mowers explained that, while on the road, it is often difficult to access government email portals.

Of particular interest to the committee was the IGA’s list of the “Top 100” towns that received assistance from the IGA. Mowers said he used the list as an aid to help him focus on his duties when he first started as a regional IGA director.

Democratic members of the committee have suggested that the list was created by Stepien to determine what mayors should be rewarded for endorsing Christie or working with the administration.

Christie in January removed Stepien from his role as head of the New Jersey Republican Party.

Contact the reporter at mbooth@alm.com.