Fight of the Week: O’Toole v. Wisniewski

In the undeniable highlight of this week’s legislative sessions in Trenton, Republicans and Democrats found themselves at each other’s throats Monday over an interim report, released by the Select Committee on Investigation, that blames Gov. Chris Christie’s cabinet appointees — but stops short of blaming the governor himself — for orchestrating the politically-motivate lane closures at the mouth of the George Washington Bridge last year.

The report, together with an accompanying Minority Statement, triggered a host of squabbles between Republicans on the panel, who feel the yearlong investigation has lacked conservative input and cast the committee’s work as a “witch hunt” to find fault with the incumbent governor, and Democrats, who tend to dominate it.

The loudest and most public of those feuds took place between Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19), the SCI’s intrepid Democratic chairman, and state Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-40), the committee’s ranking Republican member. The latter’s caustic attack on the former was one for the books, as he tore into Wisniewski for ignoring the pleas of Republican committee members over the investigation and using his leadership position for his own political gain.

But the whole affair seemed to reveal as much about the backroom power struggles and political ambitions of some of the state’s highest-profile officials as it did about where Republicans and Democrats stand on the integrity of the Bridgegate investigations. And with the gubernatorial and presidential aspirations of Christie, Wisniewski, and others on the line, even O’Toole — who took  the reins in leading Republicans’ charge Monday seemingly by his own accord — had a part to play in the spectacle.

The Set Up

The inevitable proxy clash between Republican and Democrats over the legislature’s Bridgegate investigation had been building for some time, but culminated with the release of its “interim” report this week, a 136-page document that found that while the committee was not in a position to conclude what Christie “himself knew about the lane closures or when and how his knowledge of these events developed,” most evidence pointed to gross negligence on the part of Christie officials and that “many critical questions… remain unanswered” in the investigation.

The impact of the interim report was two-fold: much of the media declared the committee has finally “exonerated” Christie, while Republicans used it to argue partisanship on the part of Democrats and again call for an end to the investigation.

The minority party’s complaints were most succinctly captured in their own statement, released just hours before the committee voted to publicly release its findings. In the 119-page document, Republicans accused the Democrat-dominated committee of operating a “shiftless, broken political vehicle,” and argued that the investigation “ran up exorbitant public costs” and that its co-chairs “proved to be some of the most partisan elected officials in modern times, using public resources to apparently carry out a national Democrat mission to destroy a popular Republican governor all the while advancing their own political ambitions.”

It was the two reports that turned Monday’s SCI hearing into a shouting match, with Republicans and Democrats banding together along party lines — Republicans to oppose the release of the committee’s interim report and to condemn its investigation, and Democrats to use the report as evidence that there is more work to be done. Wisniewski, leading the Democratic side, especially irked Republicans, led by O’Toole, when he announced at the hearing that the party’s minority statement would not be considered.

The Big Picture

Pols on both side of this issue ostensibly have something to gain through the SCI investigation, an apt political tool for anyone looking to advance their own agendas. That’s most obviously apparent with Wisniewski, who Republicans have sharply criticized for using his chairmanship on the committee as a platform for strengthening his position ahead of a 2016 gubernatorial battle.

As the minority statement itself charges: “An opportunistic and power-hungry politician also used those reprehensible lane reassignments as cover, while leading a legislative committee to try to execute a two-pronged political mission: take down Governor Chris Christie, the biggest political threat to state and national Democrats, and in so doing, become the next Democrat gubernatorial candidate.”

But even O’Toole, political observers note, likely had ulterior motives, driven in his aggressive dismissal of the investigation by more than disagreement with the way its been conducted. A close ally of Christie’s, O’Toole was able to both disparage Wisniewski and draw attention away from the less savory aspects of a report that could impede on Christie’s own presidential prospects by demonstrating such a public display of emotion.

And yet, lest anyone forget: allegations that O’Toole himself might have been involved in a cover-up surrounding the lane closures once had committee members debating subpoenaing one of their own, which made the Republican senator’s role in Monday’s squabble, which also included accusations of conflicts of interests, particularly ironic.

There’s also Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-2), whose own gubernatorial ambitions have led some to speculate that he too might want to hasten the committee’s end in order to remove any challenges to his relationship with Christie — though Sweeney has continually maintained that he supports the investigation, telling PolitickerNJ earlier this week that committee members have done a “good job.”

The Verdict

In a situation of he said, she said, it’s as yet undecided, as PolitickerNJ noted in Winners and Losers this week, whether the battle over the committee’s investigation was won by Democrats, who’d like to see it continue, or Republicans, who’d like to see it disappear. That question likely won’t be answered until members are allowed to call on key witnesses involved in the closures, like David Wildstein and Bridget Kelly, or until a parallel U.S. Attorney investigation into the matter concludes and validates or invalidates speculation surrounding Christie’s involvement.

What is more clear is that Christie, with the help of key allies in the legislature, seems to have at least for now escaped blame, even in the face of evidence that strongly suggests he had more knowledge of the closures when they were happening than he’d like to admit.

Fight of the Week: O’Toole v. Wisniewski