David Wildstein

David Wildstein, an appointee of Gov. Chris Christie to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is sworn in to testify at a hearing earlier this month. (William Thomas Cain / Getty Images / January 8, 2014)

A former close aide to Gov. Chris Christie said the governor knew about the George Washington Bridge road closures while they were happening, disputing the governor’s assertions that he only learned about the mess later.

A lawyer for David Wildstein, who engineered the lane closures while working at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said in a letter that the closures came at the “at the Christie adminstration’s order” and that “evidence exists” to show the governor learned of it during the closures and the ensuing four-day traffic jam in Fort Lee, the town leading to the bridge.

The Friday letter to the Port Authority from lawyer Alan Zegas, first reported by the New York Times, does not spell out what that evidence is, or say exactly what Christie knew and when. But it is the first sign that a member of Christie’s inner circle has broken ranks on the bridge scandal.

During a marathon press conference earlier this month, Christie said he only learned about the closures after they were over.

“I don't know what else to say except to tell them that I had no knowledge of this -- of the planning, the execution or anything about it -- and that I first found out about it after it was over,” Christie said. “And even then, what I was told was that it was a traffic study.”

In a statement issued Friday, Christie’s office said Zegas' letter “confirms what the governor has said all along -- he had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened” and only learned of them in press accounts. The Christie statement did not address whether he continued to maintain that he learned of the traffic mess after it was over.

Wildstein, a schoolmate of Christie’s at Livingston High School and his appointee to the Port Authority, in August received an email from Christie’s then-deputy chief of staff: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

“Got it,” Wildstein replied. In September, he exchanged emails apparently reveling in the traffic jams and the headaches they were causing for Fort Lee’s mayor, who did not endorse Christie for reelection.

During his epic news conference, Christie also downplayed his relationship with Wildstein, saying he barely knew him in high school and rarely spoke to him in Trenton.

Zegas wrote the letter to protest the authority’s decision not to pay legal fees for Wildstein, who resigned from the port authority in December as controversy over the lane closures grew. It says that Wildstein “contests the accuracy of various statements the governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some.”

The Democratic National Committee in Washington quickly issued a chronology dating to 1977, when Christie and Wildstein were in high school, aimed at contradicting the governor’s earlier effort to distance himself from his appointee.

“We all know what’s coming next -- Chris Christie and his allies will go after David Wildstein to question his credibility and long-standing ties to Christie,” party spokesman Michael Czin said in a blast email to reporters.

Ben Dworkin, a political analyst at New Jersey’s Rider University, cautioned against reading too much into Wildstein’s statements at this early stage.

“The bottom line is this letter seems designed to maximize its political impact and to entice both the Port Authority to pay for [Wildstein’s] legal expenses and for the U.S. attorney to offer immunity,” Dworkin said.

He noted the letter was vague about the precise nature of Wildstein’s relationship with Christie as well as how the governor supposedly knew about the lane closures while they were happening.

“Did someone tell the governor?” Dworkin asked. “Was he blind-copied on an email? Does it mean someone showed up in his office and mentioned it? We don’t know what the evidence is.”

Still, Dworkin suggested the tumult stirred by Wildstein’s assertions underscored the political toll the controversy continues to take on the potential presidential candidate, whose standing in polls -- both nationally and at home -- has fallen since the scandal broke.

“This issue isn’t going away and it’s going to be hard for Chris Christie to move forward with his own agenda, either for New Jersey or for the country, until it all gets resolved,” Dworkin said.

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joseph.tanfani@latimes.com

Twitter: @jtanfani

mark.barabak@latimes.com

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