Officials loyal to Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey went to elaborate lengths to make it appear that the September closing of lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge was part of a traffic study, even though their private communications suggest the move was purely political, according to documents released on Friday. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/11/nyregion/hundreds-of-pages-on-bridge-scandal-released.html?hp
The documents also show a concerted effort to keep their true motivation hidden, including the insistence by one official of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in an email that communications about the matter should not be conducted by email or discussed publicly.
Among the documents was a PowerPoint presentation prepared after three days of snarled traffic, titled “EARLY assessment of the benefits of the trial.” The conclusion: “T.B.D.” (To be determined.)
Ultimately, the traffic diversion, in Fort Lee, N.J., led to four mornings of gridlock, months of investigations into whether the move was a blunt display of political payback and what has become the gravest challenge to Mr. Christie’s political career, after it was revealed that a top aide was intimately involved in the matter.
unwittingly misleading the public. The governor, a Republican, called the entire episode “embarrassing and humiliating.”
Mr. Christie spent the day on Thursday trying to repair the damage the unfolding scandal has done to his image and his possible aspirations to run for president in 2016. But even as questions continued to swirl on Friday, he was still planning to travel to Florida next week to raise money for Republican candidates.
He did not comment on the newly released documents.
The documents suggest that the decision to close the lanes had been met with confusion by both local officials and workers ordered to close them.
Inspector Darcy Licorish of the Port Authority Police Department, who was assigned to place the orange cones directing local traffic away from three toll lanes, wrote that superiors could not answer how long the new traffic pattern was intended to last or whether Fort Lee officials had been informed of the change.
For months, Mr. Christie steadfastly denied that his administration had any role in the decision to close the traffic lanes. At the same time, lawmakers held hearings and subpoenaed witnesses and documents to determine exactly what happened.
No testimony or documents have shown that the governor called for shutting down the lanes or was involved in any discussions to conceal the political motive behind the closings, but the documents made clear that the discussions about the cover-up included some top aides in his office and campaign.
On Wednesday, some of those communications were made public, revealing that one of Mr. Christie’s top aides had apparently played an integral role in ordering the lanes closed and that the motivation was to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who refused to endorse Mr. Christie’s re-election effort.
On Aug. 13, that aide, Bridget Anne Kelly, one of the governor’s deputy chiefs of staff, sent an email to David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority, saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
“Got it,” Mr. Wildstein replied.
One month later, on Sept. 9, several local lanes onto the bridge, the world’s busiest, were suddenly closed, snarling traffic in Fort Lee and causing headaches for thousands of commuters. The lanes remained closed for days.
As the matter came under increasing scrutiny, Mr. Wildstein and another Christie appointee at the authority, Bill Baroni, resigned under a cloud of suspicion. Ms. Kelly was fired this week.
The new documents offer a look at the internal strife the lane closings set off within the Port Authority, ultimately pitting the executive director, Patrick J. Foye, who was appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, against officials from New Jersey appointed by Mr. Christie. At one point, as Mr. Foye continued to inquire about the matter, Mr. Wildstein called him a “piece of crap” in an email to Michael Drewniak, Mr. Christie’s chief spokesman.
Mr. Foye had pressed the matter internally, vowing in an email dated Sept. 13 to investigate. He wrote that he was “appalled” by the “hasty and ill-advised” decision that had been carried out without informing local officials, saying it had caused economic harm, endangered residents of Fort Lee and “violates federal law and the laws” of New York and New Jersey.
He seemed dismissive of the idea that the lanes were closed for a traffic study.
In November, as a number of media outlets continued to raise questions, Mr. Drewniak exchanged a series of profanity-laced emails with Mr. Wildstein, cursing reporters and disparaging Mr. Foye, as well.
The documents also indicate that Mr. Christie’s appointees at the Port Authority had discussed the matter with Mr. Christie’s communications director, Maria Comella, as early as Oct. 2, after the second of two articles appeared in The Wall Street Journal. “Comella didn’t think much of the story. Said nobody paying attention,” Mr. Baroni texted Mr. Wildstein.
The emails also suggest the intimate involvement of David Samson, Mr. Christie’s handpicked chairman of the Port Authority, showing that he was aware of the lane closings before they ended on Sept. 13.
One week after Mr. Foye sent him an angry email about the lane closings, Mr. Samson struck back in an email to New York appointees at the authority. He accused Mr. Foye of leaking a memo critical of the lane closings to The Journal. When the New Yorkers said they did not believe Mr. Foye had done so, Mr. Samson insisted, finally warning, “he’s playing in traffic, made a big mistake.”
The tension between officials from New York and New Jersey is an underlying theme of many of the documents, with Christie loyalists repeatedly trying to keep the matter from breaking into public view.
When Mr. Foye first emailed Mr. Baroni about the closings, Mr. Baroni told him that they had to talk about it in person rather than by email, and that there could be “no public discourse.”
On Sept. 13, the day the lanes were finally reopened, a staff member responsible for fielding reporters’ calls wrote to Mr. Baroni and Mr. Foye, saying he had had several inquiries from local newspapers.
Mr. Baroni said he would seek guidance, and several hours later wrote back with a statement saying that the Port Authority had been conducting a traffic study.
On Oct. 9, a Port Authority staff member emailed Mr. Wildstein with a synopsis of recent news coverage that questioned whether the lane closings had been a form of political retribution. “Has any thought been given to writing an op-ed or providing a statement about the G.W.B. study?” the staff member asked Mr. Wildstein. “Or is the plan just to hunker down and grit our way through it?”
Six New Jersey residents are suing Governor Chris Christie over claims his office created gridlock on to a major bridge as part of a political vendetta. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-25686050
The traffic mayhem was allegedly instigated in revenge against a mayor who declined to endorse Mr Christie.
Lawyer Rosemarie Arnold, who filed the lawsuit, said her clients were late for work and one had had a panic attack.
State legislators have released nearly 1,000 pages relating to their probe of the incident.
The document cache sheds further light on the closure of lanes to the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey to Manhattan.
A 12 September letter from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich to then-Port Authority deputy director Bill Baroni said the lane closures had “wreaked havoc” on the community.
“Many members of the public have indicated to me that [New York and New Jersey] Port Authority Police Officers are advising commuters in response to their complaints that this recent traffic debacle is the result of a decision that I, as the mayor, recently made,” he wrote in the letter.
“The basis, reason, or genesis of the decision is of no consequence to me; however, its profound and adverse impact on our community is of paramount importance to me,” Mr Sokolich added.
Mr Baroni – who was appointed to his former post by Mr Christie and resigned in December – also subsequently emailed a fellow Port Authority official, saying that there could be “no public discourse” on the lane closure incident.
‘Fictional’ traffic study
Mr Christie, seen as a potential future Republican presidential candidate, said on Thursday he felt “embarrassed and humiliated” by the incident and denied any involvement, blaming “deceitful” staff.
He fired his top aide, Bridget Anne Kelly, after communications that apparently showed her engineering the lane closures were made public a day earlier.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Ms Kelly wrote on 13 August to David Wildstein, a political appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the bridge.
“Got it,” Mr Wildstein, who has since resigned, replied.
He refused to testify on Thursday in a hearing investigating the matter, repeatedly invoking his fifth amendment right not to incriminate himself.
The lawsuit filed on Thursday, which seeks class-action status, calls for unspecified damages for those who were late to work and lost pay because of the lane closures.
The plaintiffs accuse Mr Christie, Ms Kelly, Mr Wildstein and the Port Authority of conspiring and committing “acts of official misconduct”, then covering it up with a “fictional traffic study”.
It claims the residents “suffered economic damages” as a result of the delays.
In Thursday’s two-hour news conference, Mr Christie said he was “heartbroken that someone who I permitted to be in that circle of trust for the last five years betrayed my trust”.
He also said he had withdrawn support for his former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, to become New Jersey Republican party chairman, because of the “callous indifference” he had shown in emails about the traffic jams.
The Democratic-controlled state legislature has been investigating the closures for several months but the allegations have gained national prominence after the emails and texts from Mr Christie’s office were released.