TRENTON - Democratic legislators investigating September lane closures at the George Washington Bridge grilled a former member of Gov. Christie's administration on Tuesday about whether politics - not constituent service - was the guiding impulse in the performance of his government job.
No one accused Matt Mowers of closing the lanes, and he said he was not involved. But Democrats, who control the Legislature, seized the daylong hearing as an opportunity to criticize the now-defunct Office of Intergovernmental Affairs for a variety of reasons.
They pointed to a "Top 100 Towns" list maintained by the office, and asked whether some were prioritized for political reasons; to steel remains from the World Trade Center that the office gave allegedly to sympathetic mayors; and to e-mails in which politics were discussed on government time.
"The lines were obviously blurred," said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen), cochair of the legislature's joint investigative committee.
The 24-year-old Mowers, who worked in IGA, a government outreach office, for 21/2 years before leaving to work for Christie's reelection campaign in April 2013, denied the allegation. In both roles, he built a close relationship with Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, the apparent target of the lane-closure plan.
"On behalf of IGA, I never did outreach in political conversations," Mowers said. He said part of his job was to keep his superiors apprised of conversations he had with local officials.
Much of Mowers' testimony mirrored the report completed by the law firm hired by Christie's office to review the lane closures.
State Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R., Passaic) bristled at Democrats' suggestion that Mowers had acted improperly. "I don't know a person in this building who has not had a political discussion in this building or an observation on politics," O'Toole said.
Also of interest to the committee were Mowers' dealings with Sokolich, a Democrat. According to Mowers, weeks before he moved to the campaign, it was Sokolich who raised the possibility of endorsing Christie.
But then, in late March, Sokolich informed Mowers of his decision not to endorse, explaining that he "feared retribution" from the Democratic Party and worried that an endorsement could hurt his law firm's business in other towns, Mowers said.
"Mayor Sokolich was candid and told me in no uncertain terms that he could not endorse the governor in spring of 2013. At that point, I did not view an endorsement as a possibility," Mowers said. "Upon passing this information to others, no one I spoke with seemed overly interested or concerned. In addition, to my knowledge the campaign never raised the issue with me or the mayor again."
In e-mails to Port Authority officials, Sokolich has asked whether the lanes were closed in response to his decision not to endorse Christie.
An attorney for Sokolich could not be reached on Tuesday.
Fort Lee experienced days of traffic delays in September as a result of the lane closures. In an Aug. 12 phone call, Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, asked Mowers about the prospect of a Sokolich endorsement.
He confirmed that Sokolich had decided not to endorse the Republican governor. A day later, Kelly wrote in an e-mail to David Wildstein, a former official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
"Got it," Wildstein responded. Wildstein resigned in December and Kelly was fired in January, after the e-mail exchange emerged. Federal prosecutors are investigating the lane closures.
Mowers said he learned of the lane closures in late September, when campaign manager Bill Stepien informed him that a newspaper was preparing to print a "ridiculous story" about the matter.
Mowers, a regional political director for the campaign, said other Democratic mayors had expressed interest in endorsing Christie, but declined to do so for fear of political retribution.
Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin, Mowers said, noted that Weinberg "has a substantial political presence in Teaneck and [Hameeduddin] was fearful of political consequences of endorsing a Republican governor."
Before Mowers' testimony, the committee met in closed session to discuss an interview Mowers previously gave to the panel's special counsel, Reid Schar. Mowers is now executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
O'Toole asked why committee members had not been given a summary of the interview, "so we're not just going down a turkey chute asking questions that are irrelevant."
After debate, the committee members voted to receive Schar's advice in closed session.
Mowers' lawyer, Craig Carpenito, criticized the panel after the episode, saying he was surprised lawmakers had not been informed of an interview that occurred two months ago and lasted several hours.
The committee previously has taken testimony from another former staffer in the IGA office, Christina Renna, as well as Christie's press secretary, Michael Drewniak, as it tries to determine who ordered the lanes closed and why.