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N.J. bridge committee hears from top Christie staffer

N.J. bridge committee hears from top Christie staffer
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POSTED: Thursday, July 17, 2014 - 5:44pm

UPDATED: Thursday, July 17, 2014 - 5:59pm

 Gov. Chris Christie's incoming chief of staff on Thursday became the fifth current or former member of the New Jersey governor's staff to go before a state legislative committee that's investigating lane closures at the George Washington Bridge last year.

The hearing came amid questions about whether the bipartisan panel, comprised of eight Democrats and four Republicans, should even proceed with its work.

Regina Egea was in charge of the governor's authorities unit, which oversaw the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the same bi-state agency that owns and operates the George Washington Bridge.

After being sworn in Thursday, Egea said she was happy to cooperate with the probe into the lane closures, which critics argue were enacted to cause massive traffic gridlock in the city of Fort Lee out of apparent political retribution against the city's Democratic mayor.

"I just want to state at the outset that I had no prior knowledge of, nor participated in the lane realignment and with that I am prepared to take questions," Egea said.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat and committee co-chair, grilled Egea on why she didn't speak with the New York appointed executive director of the Port Authority in the weeks and months after he wrote in a memo that he thought the "ill advised" lane closures may have violated state and federal laws.

"I took his comments to mean he was taking action to investigate given all of the information he had and I didn't have," Egea said. She claimed that her contact with the agency was through Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, a Christie appointee. Egea testified that at the time she was satisfied with Baroni's explanation that the closures were part of a traffic study and that the executive director's scathing memo was the result of ongoing tension between New York and New Jersey.

Egea worked closely with Baroni as the fallout from the lane closures scandal worsened. Documents obtained by the committee and notes from interviews conducted for Christie's internal investigation reveal that Egea helped Baroni craft testimony ahead of his appearance before the New Jersey Assembly's transportation committee in November of last year, roughly two months after the lane closures.

At that hearing, Baroni aggressively defended his claim that the lane closures were the result of a traffic study. He presented facts and figures with the use of several charts to show how they were supposedly measuring changes in traffic flow on the roads leading to the bridge. Documents show that Egea heavily edited his prepared testimony. She said she did so because she was tasked with helping Baroni be "as clear and concise as possible."

The Port Authority's executive director testified afterwards that there was no traffic study.

Baroni was among several Christie appointees and aides who lost their jobs in the wake of the bridge scandal. He worked closely with David Wildstein, another Christie appointee at the Port Authority who several people have claimed was the architect of the lane closures.

Before the hearing began, Republican members of the committee raised questions about the road ahead and whether they could continue with their work. Citing a so-called "Do not call" list, several Republicans asked if there was any point in moving forward when the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey asked them not to take testimony from at least nine people on a potential subpoena list.

Weinberg shot back that there isn't a "do not call" list, and said the committee's lawyer checks in with the U.S. Attorney's office on a regular basis. She said because of the ongoing federal investigation the U.S. Attorney sometimes asks them to hold off on questioning certain individuals and those names can change from week to week.

"This is part of our procedure. We are respectful of the apparent criminal investigation and we don't want to interfere with that," said Weinberg.

While Egea answered all the questions that were put to her, the committee was no closer to finding out who ordered the access lane closures and why. 

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