Ex-Christie aide Matt Mowers: I had no part in bridge scandal
As his attorney Craig Carpenito, left, listens, Matt Mowers, former aide to Gov. Chris Christie, answers a question in Trenton, N.J., Tuesday, May 20, 2014, from New Jersey lawmakers investigating the traffic jam scandal that's engulfed the governor's administration.Mowers, whose job included getting endorsements from mayors said Tuesday that he was "dumbfounded and disappointed" to learn that a northern New Jersey mayor was apparently targeted in a political payback plot orchestrated by Christie loyalists. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Matt Mowers, former aide to Gov. Chris Christie, answers a question in Trenton, N.J., Tuesday, May 20, 2014, from New Jersey lawmakers investigating the traffic jam scandal that's engulfed the governor's administration. Mowers, whose job included getting endorsements from mayors, said Tuesday that he was "dumbfounded and disappointed" to learn that a northern New Jersey mayor was apparently targeted in a political payback plot orchestrated by Christie loyalists. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
The top staffer of the New Hampshire Republican Party, a former aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, testified under oath yesterday that he had no involvement in lane closures on the George Washington Bridge last year.
“I’m disheartened and disappointed by the events that I have read about in the press,” Matt Mowers told a joint New Jersey legislative committee investigating the lane closures. “I was not involved, nor did I have any prior knowledge of the decision to realign the lanes on the George Washington Bridge. . . . I can’t comprehend why anyone would have committed these acts.”
Mowers, who became executive director of the state Republican Party in November, testified to the committee investigating the lane closures for more than five hours. The lane closures, which created traffic jams for four straight days, were allegedly an act of retribution from people in Christie’s office and at the Port Authority against the Democratic Mayor of Fort Lee for declining to endorse Christie’s re-election.
Mowers, 24, is the person who spoke to that mayor, Mark Sokolich, about an endorsement. Mowers said that when he found out about the lane closures after they happened, he thought the concept that lanes would be closed as a means of political retribution was “ridiculous.”
“In my mind, the idea that you would realign lanes in an effort to get drivers to blame their local mayor for a traffic backup as a purpose for political retribution at the time was very unbelievable, and even still in retrospect is incomprehensible to me,” Mowers said.
Several players in New Hampshire politics came up during Mowers’s testimony. Since Mowers was first subpoenaed to provide documents in January, state Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Horn has stood by him, saying she has full confidence that he will cooperate with the investigation and carry out his duties here effectively. In emails provided by Mowers from January, Horn directed party staff members to direct all press inquiries about Mowers’s involvement to Ryan Williams, a D.C.-based communications consultant for the party with ties to state politics.
“Prior to the New Hampshire press reporting it, I never saw it as having anything to do with my role in New Hampshire,” Mowers said. “But once the New Hampshire press started reporting it, for obvious reasons I would think, it did become more of an issue.”
‘Clear and open’
New Jersey Democratic state Sen. Nia Gill asked Mowers to read aloud two emails from Williams regarding comments Republican strategist Mike Dennehy made to WMUR in January, in which Dennehy said Mowers would need to be “clear and open” in order to do his job effectively.
On Jan. 17, Williams emailed a link to the story to Horn and Mowers, with the message, “Mike Dennehy is a snake.”
Later, Williams emailed only Mowers saying, “Please make sure your folks see to it so there is no possible way that Dennehy gets hired for Christie in ‘16.” Many people have seen Mowers’s move to New Hampshire as an early move by Christie to begin laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign. Even though the lane closings have made many people question Christie’s viability as a candidate, Christie said recently he thinks the incident will be a “footnote” by 2016.
Williams said he called Dennehy to apologize yesterday. “We had a good laugh about it. . . . Mike’s a good guy,” he said.
By email, Dennehy said, “It’s not a big deal to me.”
Gill also read a January email between Mowers and Bill Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager, in which Mowers said he was going to sit down with Tom Rath, a Republican strategist and former attorney general, and asked Stepien whether he needed any information from Rath. Mowers told the committee he did not discuss the lane closures with Rath, and the committee did not press him further on why he told Stepien about the meeting.
Many of the committee’s questions centered on Mowers’s work to secure campaign endorsements while working in the governor’s office and not officially on the campaign. Mowers worked as a regional director in the Intergovernmental Affairs office, known as the IGA, until he joined the campaign in April 2013. At the IGA, Mowers was a liaison between state government and roughly 183 municipalities.
He worked with Sokolich in that capacity, and the two discussed a possible endorsement on numerous occasions, Mowers said. Using documents provided by Mowers, the committee asked why he sometimes used his personal email account to address both IGA business and endorsements while still working for IGA. Mowers said he used his personal email when he had “technical issues” and could not log into his state-issued email address from a remote location and did not want to write an email on his state-issued Blackberry.
Gill brought forward another email that Mowers sent to people within IGA in 2012 that touched on “the re-election” campaign, well before Christie declared his intention to seek re-election. In the email, Mowers wrote that following the campaign of Maria Karczewski, a Republican candidate for Congress, “will allow us to develop an understanding of the activists and volunteers . . . and will likely enable us to keep the volunteer infrastructure in tact for the re-election campaign.”
“As an employee of the state of New Jersey, working in the office of the governor, why would you or anyone in his office keep tabs on potential volunteers for the governor’s re-election campaign?” Gill asked.
Mowers said he did not recall the specific reason for writing what he did but did not consider it “keeping tabs.” He said he believes Karczewski reached out to the governor’s office about her campaign at one time.
New Jersey’s ethics laws state, “State employees . . . may not use State time or State resources in pursuit of (partisan political) activities and must provide notice to the Departmental Ethics Liaison Officer.” It does not expressly prohibit state employees from engaging in political activities entirely.
Mowers said he never engaged in political activities on IGA time, and that several employees in the governor’s office did campaign business on volunteer time. He also said on numerous occasions that elected officials would bring up political activists, including endorsements, with him and, as part of his job, he would relay that information in reports to his bosses.
New Jersey Deputy House Speaker John Wisniewski, a Democrat and co-chairman of the investigative committee, also pressed Mowers on why he did not call Sokolich when he first heard about the lane closures in late September. Mowers was working on the re-election campaign at that time. Mowers said he had not spoken to Sokolich since March and saw the story as a governmental one rather than a political one.
Mowers said the only conversation he had with Bridget Kelly, who allegedly helped orchestrate the lane closures, was Aug. 12 when she called to ask him about Sokolich’s endorsement. He told her then that Sokolich was not endorsing Christie. The next day, Kelly sent an email about “traffic problems in Fort Lee” to someone at the Port Authority. Mowers said he did not connect his conversation with Kelly to the lane closures until January.
In January, Mowers was contacted by a reporter who wanted to ask him about the bridge closure. He forwarded the email to Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager, saying, “I don’t plan on returning it but let me know the team’s thoughts if they are different.”
Mowers said he sent the email to Stepien because Stepien had been his boss on the campaign.
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kronayne.)