Stepien's claim comes as part of his pushback against the Bridgegate report conducted for Christie's office by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. If true—and Stepien's lawyer says the report itself contains evidence that it is true—it would dramatically undercut Christie's narrative about how he became aware of his staff's involvement in the scandal.
According to Christie, the first time he became aware that his staff had prior knowledge of the lane closures was on January 8 when former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly's infamous "Time for some traffic problems in Ft. Lee" e-mail became public. Before the release of that email, Christie had said neither he nor anybody on his staff had any prior knowledge of the lane closures.
Stepien's claim, if accurate, would upend Christie's assertion. Continue reading for the details on what exactly it is that he's saying he told Christie.
On December 13, 2013, Christie held a press conference at which he said Stepien had "assured" him that he had no prior knowledge of the lane closures (p. 101). However, according to Stepien's lawyer, that's not true:
Mr. Stepien advised Governor Christie on December 12, 2013, that he (Mr. Stepien) did have prior knowledge of the lane realignment.What's particularly interesting about this claim is that Stepien's lawyer cites the report prepared for Christie's office as evidence for the claim. For example, this passage (p. 3) supports Stepien's claim to have had prior knowledge:
Among his political friends, Wildstein first approached Stepien about this idea to realign the Fort Lee toll lanes. Stepien, who was no longer a State employee at the time, sidestepped the question, telling Wildstein he would have to go to “Trenton.”And this (p. 94):
The Governor asked Stepien to meet with him after the breakfast to discuss a few issues, and they met in the dining room following breakfast. During that meeting, Governor Christie asked Stepien what, if anything, he knew about the lane realignment. Stepien denied having any involvement in the lane realignment decision or its implementation. Rather, Stepien told the Governor that Wildstein would come to him with “50 crazy ideas a week,” and that Stepien would remind Wildstein that Stepien was not in the Governor’s Office anymore, so Wildstein would have to run his ideas through the normal channels at the Governor’s Office.According to Stepien's lawyers, it was at that meeting that Stepien informed Christie he had known about the planned lane closures. They say that the "50 crazy ideas a week" line is an "oblique" acknowledgment by the report's authors that Stepien did inform Christie. However, the report also says that Christie did not become aware of prior knowledge by his staff until January 8, so if that passage was indeed an oblique acknowledgment, it was unintentional.
Stepien's lawyers also cite this passage (p. 104) of top Christie aide Michael DuHaime referencing Stepien's prior knowledge:
DuHaime considered the newly disclosed emails to be consistent with what Stepien had told him earlier: that Stepien had sidestepped the traffic study issue when Wildstein first mentioned it. When DuHaime later met with Stepien, DuHaime communicated the gravity of the situation. Stepien reiterated to DuHaime what he had previously told him: he had not been involved in the decision to realign the lanes.The previous discussion between Stepien and DuHaime occurred before the December 13, 2013, press conference at which Christie declared that his staff had no prior knowledge of or involvement in the lane closures. As with the "oblique acknowledgment," this doesn't conclusively prove that Stepien's claim is accurate, but it is consistent with his claim.
Also intriguing is that Christie went out of his way during his January 9, 2014, press conference to repeat his claim that Stepien had denied any prior knowledge of the scandal, but that he nonetheless had fired Stepien because of Stepien's conduct after the lane closures took place.
I had earlier conversations with Bill Stepien where, as I expressed to you at the time, that Bill told me he knew absolutely nothing about this. So -- you know, and certainly the emails yesterday, and emails involving Bill Stepien were all after -- well after the fact. So -- but that's not the basis upon which I made my decision on Bill, Matt (sp). My decision on Bill was made based on the fact of the tone, the tenor and the conduct that was evidenced in those emails. I lost confidence in his judgement. And that's why I made the decision I made as to -- as to Bill.It wasn't obvious at the time, but in hindsight, you can see how Christie had a tricky balancing act there if he knew that Stepien had been aware of the scheme: To explain why he fired someone for a scandal without accusing the person of having any prior knowledge of the scandal. In many respects, it doesn't pass the smell test, because if Christie believes that being flippant about the lane closures is a firing offense, then he should fire himself for having joked about it in December. But if the real reason Christie was firing Stepien was because Stepien had prior knowledge of it, Christie couldn't say that—because saying that would demonstrate that Christie knew more about what actually happened than he was willing to publicly admit.
Ultimately, neither Stepien's lawyer's claims nor the text of Christie's report proves what really happened. Both sides agree that David Wildstein approached Stepien about the idea for the lane closures and that Stepien had referred Wildstein to Trenton. Both sides agree that one of Christie's top political aides knew that Stepien claimed Wildstein had pushed the idea of the lane closures. And both sides agree that Stepien met with Christie and told him that Wildstein frequently pitched ideas that Stepien would sidestep. The question is whether Stepien said one of those ideas was the lane closure scandal. If so, Christie's entire narrative is upside down.