TRENTON, N.J. — A roiling political scandal involving the administration of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie expanded into new areas Monday, ratcheting up the pressure on the embattled Republican on the eve of his annual address to state legislators.
As Christie spent the day finalizing his State of the State speech, Democratic lawmakers announced the creation of special investigative committees with subpoena power to further scrutinize a scheme in which top aides to the governor worked to paralyze traffic in Fort Lee, N.J., in an apparent plot against the town’s Democratic mayor.
Meanwhile, new documents released by Jersey City officials Monday suggest that the Christie administration punished the Democratic mayor of that town last summer by cutting off his access to top state officials when he declined to back the governor’s reelection bid.
And in Washington, federal auditors have begun looking into Christie’s use of Hurricane Sandy recovery money to pay for an expensive tourism marketing campaign last year starring him and his family.
The developments compound the political challenge Christie faces in trying to move past the controversy, which began as a local furor over blocked access lanes to the George Washington Bridge before exploding into a national story that threatens his future as a leading GOP presidential candidate.
“This started as an inquiry into the Port Authority, and now the trail leads directly into the governor’s office,” Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski (D), who will head the assembly’s investigation of the bridge episode, said in an interview. “The scope of our investigation has gotten considerably larger, and it’s clear there was an inappropriate use of power.”
When asked about the new investigations, a Christie spokesman pointed to the governor’s remarks at a news conference last week in which he said his administration will “work cooperatively” with legislators.
The governor is expected to address the bridge scandal in Tuesday’s speech, but he is unlikely to linger on it. Aides said Christie wants to cast forward and emphasize his administration’s policy priorities, such as property tax relief and criminal-justice reform. He also will urge the legislature to extend the school day and school year.
But legislators from both parties said they expect the controversy to dominate Trenton politics for weeks, if not longer.
“I think Christie needs to address the bridge situation whether he wants to or not, given the circumstances,” said Assemblyman David Wolfe (R). “The story about why this all happened keeps changing, and people are wondering about what really happened. Talking about it and taking it on isn’t a bad idea.”
Democrats, who control the state legislature, intend to keep the issue in the spotlight. Both chambers are set to hold special sessions Thursday to approve broad subpoena powers.
Wisniewski said he wants to use the authority to compel top Christie officials to testify. He has the backing of the state Senate president, Steve Sweeney (D), a Christie ally who said he would encourage his deputies to take the lead as a new legislative session opens this week.
“This stuff makes me sick,” Sweeney said of the political activities by Christie aides. “I want to find out as much as anyone else about what is going on over there.”
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D), who will chair the Senate’s special panel, said the legislature will also appoint outside counsel to help with the inquiries. “Maybe it just was a bunch of frat boys trying to punish a mayor,” Weinberg said. “Maybe it wasn’t. We’ll have to find out.”
Subpoenas are expected to be issued soon to two aides who were jettisoned by Christie last week: Bill Stepien, the governor’s former political adviser, and Bridget Anne Kelly, his former deputy chief of staff.
Democrats said they will seek more information about the role played by David Samson, a Christie adviser and chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. A cache of bridge-related documents released last week included a text message indicating that Samson discussed a possible meeting with Christie shortly before Kelly sent an e-mail setting the lane closures in motion.
Democrats also said they have not ruled out moving toward impeachment proceedings if Christie is directly implicated.
“At this point the jury is out on impeachment, but if he has violated a law, the legislature will go after him,” said Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D), a member of the transportation committee. “In that kind of scenario, if he didn’t resign, we’d move to impeach.”
The new inquiry could further upend the governor’s office. Chief of Staff Kevin O’Dowd, a Christie confidant who has been nominated to be the state attorney general, has been given no guarantee that his nomination will last. The promotion of Regina Egea — who has been tapped to be the new chief of staff — also is being reevaluated, said a Republican official. As director of Christie’s authorities unit, Egea was alerted to the traffic problems caused by the lane closures shortly after the lanes were reopened, e-mails show.
The documents show that Christie’s staff initially made friendly overtures to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop when he was elected in May, arranging a day of meetings for him with top state officials. The meetings were then canceled, around the time Christie aides apparently learned that Fulop was not going to endorse the governor for reelection.
A spokeswoman for Fulop said Christie officials have not responded to multiple requests to reschedule. When asked about the emerging allegations at a news conference last week, Christie acknowledged conflicts with Fulop but said his administration was assisting Jersey City in several areas.
“I don’t know about specific meetings or what’s going on, but certainly, you know, I will look into all those things,” Christie said. “But the fact is that what Mayor Fulop knows is, when we agree with him from a policy perspective we’ll work with him. When we disagree with him, we’ll express those disagreements. And sometimes that’ll mean friction.”
Christie spokesman Colin Reed said in a statement Monday that the governor’s office “has and continues to work with Jersey City officials on numerous issues, including taking criminals off the streets, Sandy recovery aid and improving local roads.”
“Mayor Fulop’s words and actions must be viewed through the lens of partisan politics and his attempt to advance his own personal agenda,” Reed said.
Separately, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), a longtime Christie critic, said Monday that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is investigating the governor’s use of federal recovery money related to Hurricane Sandy, which tore apart much of the Garden State’s coastline in 2012.
Public ads featuring Christie first drew criticism last year from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and others because they brought taxpayer-funded attention to the governor during his reelection campaign.
Christie aides noted that HUD praised the ads.
“We’re confident that any review will show that the ads were a key part in helping New Jersey get back on its feet after being struck by the worst storm in state history,” Reed said.
Gold and Leonnig reported from Washington.