The simmering controversy surrounding the involvement of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration in traffic-snarling lane closures on the George Washington Bridge was blown wide open on Friday when an attorney for David Wildstein – Christie’s former appointee at the Port Authority who oversaw the lane closures – claimed the governor was aware of the situation as it unfolded, contrary to Christie’s earlier claims.
Critics of Christie’s administration pounced, saying the lawyer’s claim raises fresh questions about whether the governor was involved in the decision to shut down lanes on the bridge in an apparent act of retaliation against a local mayor who’d declined to endorse his re-election bid.
But Christie’s allies and even some of his detractors questioned the substance and motives behind the accusation, noting that Wildstein is facing prosecution and would have ample incentive to fish for immunity by tossing accusations at the governor.
In a press conference shortly after the scandal erupted, Christie insisted he “first found out about the [bridge traffic] after it was over.”
But Wildstein’s attorney, in a letter, said that “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.”
The letter did not provide any specific evidence, nor did it say Christie was aware of the apparent political motivation behind the lane closures.
Christie’s office immediately launched into damage control, saying 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.”
“The allegations being made by Mr. Wildstein through his attorney lends credence to the skepticism about the governor's statement," said state Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who is heading a legislative probe into the controversy, according to the Newark Star-Ledger. “It validates the line of questioning the committee has chosen to pursue."
Another Democratic state legislator even raised the specter of impeachment if the letter has any grounding in fact.
“If Wildstein's statement is sustained, I would hope the governor would do the right thing and not put the state through a trial, and he would resign," state Sen. Ray Lesniak said, according to the Star-Ledger.
National Democrats were eager to pile on as well.
“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,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Mo Elleithee said in a statement, according to the Star-Ledger. "Chris Christie said he barely knew David Wildstein. That was untrue. He said he hadn’t seen Mr. Wildstein in a long time. That was untrue. He’s repeatedly said that he had no knowledge of the lane closures. Today’s revelations raise serious questions about whether that is true."
Still, others were content to reserve judgment, raising questions about the substance of Wildstein’s claims and the motives he might have in raising them.
State Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, a Republican on the panel probing the lane closures, said the accusations were “vague” and part of a “last ditch effort” by Wildstein to minimize his own legal culpability.
“At this point, nobody can really make any sort of judgment on what the letter is even attempting to infer,” she said, according to the Star Ledger. “Do I find the letter to be troublesome? Yes. Do I think based upon what’s put forth in the letter, does it change the landscape at all? No."
“I don’t see it as a smoking gun in any sort of fashion,” she added.
Even Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee whose decision to not endorse Christie apparently spawned the whole kerfuffle, conceded Wildstein has “credibility issues.”
“I don't want the state's highest office to be implicated in this. I don’t. I take the governor at his word,” Sokolich told CNN. “However, this letter seems to imply perhaps there was knowledge he knew during" the lane closures.
And former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a close ally of Christie’s, said the sparse details provided in the letter do not directly conflict with Christie’s own statements.
“The most serious charge would be, did the governor know beforehand and plan it?” Giuliani said on CNN. “Well, clearly, Wildstein is not saying that and there's no evidence that he did. Now the question is, when did he find out and how did he find out? And so far, Wildstein's letter does not really contradict that the governor did find out afterwards and he found out from the newspapers.”