The PolitickerNJ Interview: John Wisniewski

SAYREVILLE – In his office here, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19) sits comfortably at the head of a solid oak conference table, sipping coffee from a glass mug. Donning a blue tie to match a set of piercing blue eyes, he’s cool and collected, a shining example of how a New Jersey assemblyman might spend his time during these dog days, when the sun is shining and the statehouse is empty.  But it would be misleading to call Wisniewski your typical assemblyman — this one is in the middle of one of the most controversial and potentially corrupt scandals of recent memory.

Wisniewski is chairman of the Select Committee on Investigations, the bicameral, bipartisan board put together last year in the wake of the George Washington Bridge lane closures. It’s been seven months since the Middlesex County Democrat began probing the depths of what might have been a politically motivated, possibly illegal political stunt, and he still hasn’t hit bedrock. He’s been hounded by reporters — this one included — who call him weekly asking for fresh details on the investigation’s progress. He’s issued subpoenas and sat through dozens of grueling hours of testimony by some of the highest rankings officials in Gov. Chris Christie’s cabinet. More recently, he’s been blasted by Republicans on the committee who’ve likened its dogged pursuit of the case’s smoking gun to “a witch hunt”. They all want answers.

Anyone else in his position might at this point be feeling the heat. But not John “Wiz” Wisniewski. He’s been playing this game for too many years — 19, by his count — for that.

“Look, this is not a made for TV reality show,” Wisniewski, a 52-year-old veteran lawmaker, told reporters Thursday evening after his committee heard testimony from its latest witness, Christie’s incoming Chief of Staff Regina Egea. “I keep telling these guys this. People may want to take a long commercial break because it’s a little boring, but these things take time.”

In an hour long sit-down with PolitickerNJ, Wiz reiterated some of those sentiments, and offered his thoughts on Egea’s testimony, the investigation’s progress thus far, and a number of other issues looming large in the life of a 20-year veteran of New Jersey’s political playground. As far as presidential endorsements go, he’s not yet ready to jump on the Hillary Clinton bandwagon — though he does have a pretty good working relationship with Martin O’Malley, the Maryland governor who may be warming up for a Democratic challenge. He sees a “fundamental problem” with the way the state’s Republican governor has handled its financial woes in recent years, and believes he could get New Jersey back on track, given the opportunity. Does that mean a possible gubernatorial run?

His options are open, but right now, he’s got other business.

With political ambitions or presidential endorsements held at a distance, Wiz is keeping his focus on the task at hand. (“I can’t tell you what comes next, because I believing in taking it one step at a time. Doing this job well has its own rewards,” he said, referring to his position on the investigation committee”). Asked about the committee’s main focus — namely, what motives, if any, state officials had for staging an amateurish traffic study that had Fort Lee gridlocked for four whole days — Wiz answered simply: we’re just not sure.

“There seems to be no solid connection either real or imagined of why that would be worth it,” Wiz said. “None of the theories proposed so far” — which range from a governor scorned by his failure to win a re-election endorsement from Fort Lee’s mayor to games of political one-upmanship at the Port Authority –  “make sense in the context of the size of the retribution.”

Wiz is unabashed when he says the investigation, began in January as a joint effort between the Assembly and the Senate, is making progress — “albeit incremental,” he’s quick to add. Together with his co-chair, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), Wiz and his committee have amassed a small mountain of evidence that suggests, but falls short of confirming, a serious abuse of power on the part of the Port Authority and state officials responsible for organizing the plot. (Wisniewski is also quick to add that his committee’s mission is different from the one undertaken by the U.S. Attorney General’s office, which is to prove if any laws were broken). Among the list of those officials the committee has grilled so far is Christie’s Chief of Staff, Kevin O’Dowd; former top aide to then-Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly, Christina Genovese Renna; press secretary Michael Drewniak; Port Authority Commissioner William “Pat” Schuber; and, most recently, the front office’s (tentatively) incoming Chief of Staff, Regina Egea.

So far, Wisniewski says, all of their testimonies have followed “an abiding principle: don’t ask questions if you don’t want to know the answers.”

“When troubling circumstances were laid at their doorstep they seemed to brush it off and to attribute it to being political, bad blood between New York and New Jersey, and didn’t do any reasonable due diligence about whether they should be concerned with the allegations,” Wisniewski said. “We heard the refrain that ‘oh, it was New York and New Jersey,’ ‘oh, it was political, Weinberg and Wisniewski were involved and why would we for the love of god take anything those two say seriously. And that is troubling.”

The problem, as Wisniewski sees it and has regularly repeated, is the lack of investigative fortitude — a “curious lack of curiosity,” as he and Weinberg call it, on the part of officials that kept them at the time from bringing the issue to the attention of people who could do something to stop it, namely the governor. That was made clear most recently by Egea, who, even after receiving an email from a top Port Authority executive alleging possibly illegal activities still failed to investigate. Instead, she chalked it up to “internal politics” at the Port Authority, where New York and New Jersey employees are divided in much the same way their respective regions, split by the Hudson River, are divided.

Wisniewski acknowledges this feature of the bi-state agency, and recalls a time when “the Port Authority was routinely recognized for professionalism, how it managed the affairs of the region with a minimal amount of interference.” Today, he says, “that seems to have been turned on it’s head — We now have an agency which nothing can happened in either state unless there is an equal and opposite reaction in the other state.” Wiz concurrently serves as chairman of the Assembly’s Transportation Committee, so doesn’t hesitate to elaborate when given the opportunity to comment on the organization charged with overseeing the movement of goods and people in the region.

“There’s another larger problem in that the overall policy apparatus of the agency does not seem to be focused primarily on transportation but on so many non-transportation issues,” he says, and offers as an example its involvement in issuing grants and meddling in real estate endeavors in local municipalities around the state. “There’s a need to examine the Port Authority and reign it in as a transportation agency first and foremost. But my concern is that passing legislation that would improve the transparency and accountability but leave the same cast of characters is not really going to change the culture that’s emerged there.”

That culture — where New Jersey appointees like Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni are said to often clash with New York appointees like Executive Director Patrick Foye — may have helped create an atmosphere where officials like David Wildstein, Christie’s “eyes and ears” at the agency, and Kelly felt comfortable engaging in games of political one-upmanship, Wiz admits. But he’s also quick to deny the agency’s internal troubles as an appropriate excuse for not taking action during something so obviously suspicious as the GWB lane closures. “It’s like going to a soccer match and being concerned that there are soccer balls being kicked around — it is how the Port Authority operates,” he says, adding that a little tension between the New York and New Jersey factions creates a productive “give and take” and encourages comprise among its officials. “And so to have as your justification of not doing your due diligence that there was tension is like saying the sun is shining,” he argues.

Another obstacle that has held up the committee’s progress is that it’s had to yield — willingly, Wiz says — to the U.S. Attorney General’s own investigation. Conflicting schedules forced Wisniewski’s investigative committee to knock down the number of desired witnesses from 13 to nine after Fishman announced he wanted to question them first. “Starting in July there were a number of people we had hoped to call and there was an understanding that we would have access to them and it seems that that’s changed,” Wiz says, though he added the committee respects the supremacy of Fishman’s investigation.

Wisniewski has called Fishman’s conduct surrounding his investigation “sphinx-like,” and it’s unclear what the latter has planned for the nine witnesses, most of whom were closest to the heart of the scandal last year. On Friday, Fishman debunked rumors in a recent Esquire article that claimed his investigation was honing in on indictments of a number of top Christie officials, calling them “almost entirely incorrect.” Wisniewski’s reply? “Its the most that Fishman has said about the investigation since it has started, and as much as he did say, he also left unsaid a lot more about what exactly they are doing. I give him high marks for maintaining the integrity of his process — his operation has been noteworthy for its lack of leaks, unlike his predecessor. So we’ll have to wait and see what he does.”

Until then, Wisniewski says the committee will work on communicating with lower-profile witnesses — such as the as yet unnamed Port Authority police sergeant who told Fort Lee’s police chief that the lanes were closed because the city’s mayor refused to endorse the governor — until its ready to issue a final report, which could possibly be in late fall, but probably later.

For Wiz, New Jersey politics is always “more abundantly clear in the rearview mirror.”

“If the committee had unilateral control over the facts, they could issue a report tomorrow,” he said, “but so many facts are out of our control that we have to wait and see what happens and play it like that. What I can say is that there is more territory behind us than in front of us.”

"I don't think what he's doing tonight, the method by which he's doing it helps to build a trustful relationship."
—Gov. Chris Christie reacting to President Barack Obama's speech on immigration reform.