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TRENTON, N.J. — Chris Christie clowned around with Jimmy Fallon on television this month. He took the field two days ago at Yankee Stadium for a charity softball game with celebrities.
Yet as New Jersey's governor stakes a new claim on public attention, a scandal that began with lane closings at the George Washington Bridg
e has expanded. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and the Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating whether the Port Authority improperly financed the $1 billion renovation of the Pulaski Skyway to benefit the second-term Republican's agenda, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Opponents say the probe, along with a gaping budget deficit and his handling of Hurricane Sandy, rule out a 2016 White House run. Christie joked with Fallon on June 12 that he could "hypothetically" defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton, at least on the dance floor.
"The governor can pretend this is going to go away and say it is going away but who do you believe — me or your own eyes?" said State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Teaneck who leads a legislative panel investigating the closings. "It's a fact of life now for this administration."
While lawmakers conduct their own probe into the bridge closings and take testimony from Christie aides in hearings, Vance's prosecutors have subpoenaed documents and interviewed witnesses, the person with knowledge of the case said. The prosecutor is trying to determine whether the agency or its employees violated the Martin Act, a New York securities fraud law enacted in 1921, said the person, who asked not to be identified without authorization to speak publicly.
Christie had directed the Port Authority, which oversees the New York metropolitan area's bridges, tunnels and airports, to spend $1.8 billion on the Pulaski Skyway and three other road projects.
Authority lawyers questioned whether the agency could finance the Pulaski Skyway, which feeds into the Holland Tunnel joining New Jersey to Lower Manhattan. The agency was permitted to improve access roads only to the Lincoln Tunnel, several miles north, lawyers argued in internal discussions.
After months of debate among the agency, New Jersey's transportation department and its attorney general, authority commissioners in March 2011 approved the funding. A day earlier, a former agency lawyer said in a memo that it could be argued that increased traffic at the Holland Tunnel causes diversions to the Lincoln Tunnel, according to a document made public March 30 by The Record, a New Jersey newspaper.
Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for the governor, Tuesday released an email that said the deal was examined by lawyers on all sides of the transaction as well as the outside firm of Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe, which counsels the agencies on bond issues. The New Jersey Attorney General's Office also conducted a review and found no improprieties, he said.
"Dozens and dozens of lawyers from both sides of the river reviewed that financing plan and approved it, as did the commissioners at Port Authority," Christie said in April. "So I relied upon the advice of lawyers from both sides of the river to come to that conclusion and I'm confident that if the SEC reviews it — that's what they're doing — they'll come to the same conclusion."
Christie at first made light of the traffic scandal before emails came to light showing the involvement of aides and allies in closing the George Washington Bridge access lanes in September, clogging the town of Fort Lee, whose Democratic mayor failed to endorse his re-election. In December, Christie said that he'd donned a hard hat and safety vest to move cones himself to block bridge approaches.
After messages were revealed in January that showed his allies were involved, Christie said he didn't know anything and had been betrayed.
Telephone logs made available yesterday on the legislative panel's website showed contact from August 2012 through January 2014 between David Samson, Christie's appointee as Port Authority chairman, and some of the the governor's top aides in Trenton, including Kevin O'Dowd, chief of staff; Charles McKenna, then-chief counsel; and Regina Egea, then-authorities unit director.
The calls continued Sept. 9 through Sept. 12, when the lanes were closed, and in later weeks as lawmakers summoned Port Authority officials to Trenton to explain the traffic jams. The records don't show contact with Christie, and don't indicate the nature of the calls, whose duration was mostly less than 10 minutes.
This month, Christie tried a return to humor with an appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon." In a skit called "the Evolution of Dad Dancing," the pair clomped through a series of embarrassing moves. At the end, Fallon did a dance called "This Bridge Is Closed," prompting Christie to throw up his hands in feigned anger and storm offstage.
On June 23, Christie played third base in a charity softball game at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx organized by former New York Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason, and helped his team notch a 7-6 victory. Christie wore the number 55, in honor of his place as the Garden State's 55th governor.
The Pulaski inquiry may stop the fun for now.
"This latest revelation has to be enormously concerning," said Brigid Harrison, a professor of law and government at Montclair State University. "There clearly was an attempt to if not recreate his pre-Bridgegate image then at least redefine who he is post-Bridgegate."
New Jersey Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, a Republican ally of Christie's from Westfield, said the latest round of attacks are attempts to derail the governor.
"When you're that successful of a public figure nationally you have a target on your back," Bramnick said. "If you put anybody under a microscope — anybody can make any allegations they want against anyone. So far no one's been charged with anything."
Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, a Republican from Westwood who sits on the investigation panel in Trenton, said a published report that Christie did a flyover of the traffic jams in a State Police helicopter that ran at the height of the controversy shows the level of speculation that has taken place.
Christie's office later released flight logs that they said refuted that report.
"I take it with a grain of salt," Schepisi said. "Since the beginning, we've heard a lot of permutations that have often proven to be incomplete or not true. If they are investigating, let them investigate."
_ Voreacos reported from Newark, N.J. Contributors: Martin Z. Braun and Tiffany Kary in New York and Elise Young in Trenton.