JERSEY CITY, New Jersey — Three former New Jersey State Ethics Commission members are claiming that Governor Chris Christie requested the removal of the agency’s executive director and replaced her with an in-house lawyer while the commission was investigating an aide to Christie officials implicated in the “BridgeGate” scandal.
According to the Star-Ledger, Christie interfered in the New Jersey State Ethics Commission to appoint a lawyer close to him, replacing a commissioner that was investigating inappropriate behavior by a staffer in Trenton. That staffer, Barbara Panebianco, was an executive assistant working under Bill Stepien and Bridget Anne Kelly, who are both central to the investigation into last autumn’s closings on the George Washington Bridge.
Panebianco came before the board on an accusation that she had used her influence to have government officials remove feral cats on her property. Those alleging interference with the investigation say an attorney close to Christie, Peter Tober, began demanding information on the investigation, including the citizen filing the complaint against Panebianco and information the committee dug up on the search. The executive director approached for this information, Kathleen Wiechnik, refused to divulge the information and was told within months that she would be removed from the committee director position. Instead, Wiechnik resigned and was replaced on the committee by Tober.
Those who defend the Christie administration on the case note that Tober recused himself from the Panebianco case, though the case against her was dismissed after an investigation. They also note that those accusing the Christie administration of wrongdoing kept this information from the public for four years, only to bring it up in the aftermath of BridgeGate. But the former committee members filing the complaint argue that any influence the Governor may put on the Ethics Committee could material damage its effectiveness. Republican State Senator Bill Schluter, speaking to the Star-Ledger, said this was the first time he had seen such communication between the ethics committee and the governor’s office.
The news surfaces just as reports indicate that the BridgeGate investigation is spreading beyond the Garden State. CBS New York reports that sources have told them the Manhattan District Attorney’s office is beginning to investigate Christie’s relationship to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, issuing a subpoena on a number of transportation projects. Among those projects is the rebuilding of the World Trade Center and reconstruction on the Pulaski Skyway, an extensive bridge connecting Jersey City to Newark. The Pulaski Skyway does not touch New York but has been in dire need of repair for decades, with one construction official working on rehabilitating the behemoth describing its foundation as having the consistency of a “wafer cookie.”
Last month, Governor Christie announced that Port Authority Chairman David Samson, a key figure both in BridgeGate and the accusation by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that Christie’s office threatened to deny Hurricane Sandy relief funds if she did not approve a construction project, would resign effective immediately, and that New Jersey sought to dissolve the Port Authority into two state-based entities to minimize disputes.