TRENTON — Taxpayers have paid more than $15 million for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's legal response to the George Washington Bridge scandal, according to records reviewed by The Associated Press, and the cost could climb since digital records must be retained during an appeal.

Data forensics firm Stroz Friedberg billed the state about $700,000 in 2017 and more than $60,000 in 2018, according to Department of Law and Public Safety records. Those billings came after two former Christie allies were convicted in a 2016 criminal trial and brings the total amount paid to the firm to $4.1 million.

The bills are a reminder of the political-legal drama that engulfed the Republican's second term, contributing to his sinking approval ratings and helping to weigh down his presidential aspirations. Christie has denied any wrongdoing and was never charged.

The September 2013 decision to shut down the world's busiest bridge connecting New Jersey to New York stemmed from a political revenge plot against the mayor of Fort Lee over his failure to endorse Christie's re-election.

Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, were convicted in 2016 of carrying out the plot. They are appealing their convictions in federal court.

The new bills do not reflect $9.1 million paid to Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which produced a report that cleared Christie of a connection to the politically motivated lane closure. It also does not include the $2.1 million paid to King & Spalding, who employed Christie's former personal attorney Chris Wray. Wray is now director of the FBI.

The total taxpayer tab grows further when accounting for the more than $1 million spent by the Democratic-led Legislature to investigate and also spending on the federal prosecution.

Leland Moore, a spokesman for attorney general's office, said the Stroz Friedberg billing was part of the governor's office and some state employees' response to "various subpoenas and investigations" by the Legislature and federal prosecutors. The 2017 and 2018 charges are for data hosting, Moore said.

The firm continues to securely maintain the relevant data and "must be retained until all criminal appeals and civil litigation matters related to the (investigation is) concluded," he added.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, who co-chaired the legislative investigation in the case, questioned whether taxpayers should still have to foot the bill.

"It's an exorbitant expense for something that we never quite got the whole story," she said in an interview.

Christie's spokesman referred questions to Gibson Dunn, which referred a reporter to the attorney general. Emailed questions to Stroz Friedberg were not immediately answered.

The state also paid about $13,000 to the firm of Alston & Bird in 2017 to represent Christie during a citizen's complaint over the bridge closing. Christie was represented in the case by Craig Carpenito, who currently serves as the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey.

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