TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A special legislative panel investigating an apparent political payback scheme involving Gov. Chris Christie's aides issued 20 new subpoenas Thursday, and he made his first trip since the scandal broke to pledge he won't be distracted from the job of rebuilding from Superstorm Sandy.
Christie, meanwhile, announced the hiring of a legal team to help his administration deal with multiple investigations into a scandal that won't be put to rest quickly. The governor's legal team, to be led by former federal prosecutor Randy Mastro, will "review best practices for office operations and information flow, and assist with document retention and production," the administration said in a brief written statement. A spokeswoman would not say who is paying or how much the firm cost.
Two New Jersey legislative committees, including one also using a former federal prosecutor; the U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey, which Christie headed before running for governor; and the chairman of a U.S. Senate committee are conducting inquiries into what happened in September when lanes to the George Washington Bridge from the town of Fort Lee were shut down for four days, causing massive gridlock.
The plot apparently was hatched by Christie's aides as a political vendetta, possibly because Fort Lee's Democratic mayor wouldn't endorse the Republican governor's re-election. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who is leading the primary legislative probe, said the new subpoenas seek documents from 17 people and three organizations. The recipients of the subpoenas won't be named until the documents are served, presumably by Friday.
The likely targets are people who worked for Christie or who are or were part of his inner circle, such as Bridge Anne Kelly, the fired aide who suggested in an email to another Christie confidante "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." Another likely target is Bill Stepien, Christie's two-time campaign manager who appeared to gloat over the traffic chaos.
At a news conference last week, Christie said he would continue interviewing his senior staff to determine if there is any other information he needs to know and if he needs to take any further action, but he did not indicate his review would go further than that.
Christie did not address the scandal directly Thursday when he made his first public appearance outside the State House in the eight days since the lane scandal broke wide open. He went to friendly territory — heavily Republican Ocean County — for an event initially scheduled for Jan. 8 that was postponed after the revelation of emails that appear to show Kelly, formerly a top aide, ordering the lane closures for political retribution.
The setting was the type of place that elevated Christie's national profile in the weeks following Superstorm Sandy in 2012 — a shore fire station much like the ones where he reassured worried residents in the days after the storm. The governor's work leading New Jersey through the recovery from the storm, which damaged more than 360,000 homes and businesses, helped cement his national reputation as a no-nonsense, hard-driving governor willing to work closely with Democrats to get things done. It also raised his stock as a potential 2016 presidential candidate.
Like those appearances 14 months ago, this one was also carried live on television and gave him a chance to reassure residents. In this case, he hugged and then held the shoulder of Amy Peters, a Manahawkin woman who was tearful as she thanked the state and local governments for helping her get back in a home that had been devastated by the storm.
Christie did not directly mention the bridge scandal, but he seemed to refer to it when he joked about how many more video cameras — more than 20 — were trained on him than he would expect for this kind of event. He got cheers when he suggested reporters at least dine in local restaurants to help the area.
"I am focused as completely this morning as I was when I woke up on the morning of Oct. 30, 2012, and nothing will distract me from getting the job done," he said. "Nothing." People who attended Christie's speech said their support for him hadn't changed because of the bridge controversy.
"You do pay attention," said Rob Hunsberger, a homebuilder who is rebuilding houses wrecked by the storm. "But there are bigger problems that people are having." Christie is also resuming his public duties as chairman of the Republican Governors Association with a scheduled trip Friday to Florida. He's headlining private fundraisers for Gov. Rick Scott, who is considered one of the most vulnerable Republican governors in the country facing re-election this fall.
As Christie works to assure top Republican donors that he has taken the appropriate steps to address the New Jersey controversy, he'll face dissent. Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a Florida congresswoman, plans to hold at least two Christie-focused news conferences in cities where Christie is set to appear.
In other developments Thursday: — As expected, both chambers of the state Legislature voted to authorize special investigative committees. The Assembly panel, made up of eight Democrats and four Republicans, issued the new subpoenas. The Assembly retained Reid Schar, a former federal prosecutor who helped convict former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich of corruption, as special counsel. They did not say how much the lawyer would cost.
— U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who is Commerce Committee chairman, reported that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the George Washington Bridge, had responded to a series of questions he posed about the closings. The answers, which he made public, provided "zero evidence that the purpose of these closures was to conduct a legitimate traffic study," he said.
Mulvihill reported from Manahawkin.