TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The highest-ranking aide to Republican Gov. Chris Christie to testify before lawmakers about a plot to create traffic jams at one of the nation's busiest bridges said Monday he doesn't know who ordered the scheme or why.
The official, chief of staff Kevin O'Dowd, also testified that he played no role in the political retribution plot, in which lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, connecting Fort Lee and New York City, were closed for days in September, creating massive backups in Fort Lee.
"I had no prior knowledge of, or played no role in, the decision to close the lanes at the George Washington Bridge," O'Dowd said in his opening statement.
O'Dowd testified for about seven hours before the bipartisan panel investigating the closures. The U.S. attorney's office is investigating separately.
O'Dowd said he believed that Bridget Kelly, a deputy he supervised, was being truthful when she said she had no involvement in the plot. But he acknowledged that he did not press when she said she sometimes deleted emails or ask how she handled a message of complaint from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who didn't support Christie for re-election and the apparent target of the payback plot.
Kelly was later fired after emails showed she set the plot in motion by writing, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
The scandal has threatened the presidential ambitions of Christie, considered a top contender if he decides to run in 2016. He has denied advance knowledge of it.
O'Dowd was Christie's pick to be the state's attorney general, but the nomination stalled because of the bridge scandal. At an appearance Monday in Camden, Christie said he remains confident in O'Dowd and said he would re-nominate him if he still wants the position. Both men are former federal prosecutors.
O'Dowd said that on Dec. 12, months after the lane closings, Christie instructed him to ask Kelly whether she was involved. O'Dowd said he "trusted and believed" Kelly when she assured him she had nothing to do with the plot.
The next morning she produced an email from the last day the lanes were closed in which Sokolich complained about the traffic jams and raised the possibility of political payback. O'Dowd said he showed Christie a copy of the mayor's email.
The governor held a news conference later that day denying that anyone on his staff or re-election campaign was involved in the scheme.
Another person who lost his job amid the scandal, former Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien, was in the audience along with his lawyer for O'Dowd's testimony. They left without commenting.