Documents: Christie appointees stonewalled queries into lane closures

Posted on: 9:40 pm, January 10, 2014, by

Chris Christie says it was family rather than presidential politics that convinced him to undergo weight-reduction surgery.

Chris Christie says it was family rather than presidential politics that convinced him to undergo weight-reduction surgery.

 

(CNN) — New documents show appointees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tried to stem other officials’ anger and stonewall media queries about a hastily crafted plan to close access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, closures that wreaked traffic havoc on the New Jersey side of the nation’s busiest bridge.

In a terse e-mail, the executive director of the New York and New Jersey Port Authority expressed anger for not being told about the lane closures in New Jersey that led into the George Washington Bridge. He used his authority to override the decision four days after traffic logjams crippled commutes.

He also expressed concern the lane closures may have resulted in critically slow emergency response time and may have violated the law.

“Reversing over 25 years of PA (Port Authority) GWB (George Washington Bridge) operations, the three lanes in Fort Lee eastbound to the GWB were reduced to one lane on Monday of this week without notifying Fort Lee, the commuting public we serve,” wrote Patrick Foye, the executive director, on September 13 to other Port Authority officials. “I am appalled by the lack of process, failure to inform our customers and Fort Lee and most of all by the dangers created to the public interest.”

In his e-mail, which was sent to a number of high ranking officials on the Port Authority, Foye said, “I pray that no life has been lost or trip of a hospital- or hospice-bound patient delayed.”

He also wrote that he believes the “hasty and ill-advised decision violates federal law and the laws of both states.”

“I will get to the bottom of this abusive decision which violated everything this agency stands for,” he wrote.

The revelations are part of more than 2,000 pages of documents released late Friday by a New Jersey State Assembly committee as part of its investigation of top Christie advisers, who are accused of closing down access lanes to the country’s busiest bridge as an act of political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.

The documents also show that Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak had dinner with David Wildstein, then-executive director of the Port Authority, two days before the transportation official resigned in December over questions around the now-notorious multiday traffic jam in Fort Lee. Wildstein thanked Drewniak for his “sound advice” and the two men later e-mailed back and forth about how to announce his departure from the Port Authority.

In one e-mail, Drewniak said the governor approved the final statement.

Foye was enraged by the decision to close the lanes and his e-mail resulted in many e-mails back and forth between Port Authority officials.

Bill Baroni, a Christie-appointed Port Authority official who resigned in December over the controversy, replied to Foye, saying he was “on way to office to discuss” and that there “can be no public discourse” on the controversy.

In response, Foye tersely wrote, “Bill that’s precisely the problem: there has been no public discourse on this.”

After the Foye e-mail was leaked to the Wall Street Journal in September, David Samson, the Christie-appointed chairman of the authority, wrote to another official on September 17, “I am told the ED (executive director) leaked to the WSJ his story about Fort Lee issues—very unfortunate for NY/NJ relations.”

Samson, in an e-mail on September 18, wrote, “This is yet another example of a story, we’ve seen it before, where he distances himself from an issue in the press and rides in on a white horse to save the day.”

According to the documents released Friday, drivers began complaining about the traffic near the bridge immediately after the lanes were reduced.

An e-mail to George Washington Bridge General Manager Robert Durando from an associate described the types of complaints that came in.

It describes one angry resident who wrote that her husband, who had been out of work for more than a year, was 40 minutes late to his new job.

The Port Authority is “playing God with people’s jobs,” she wrote.

New Jersey officials realized early on that the lane closures had morphed from a traffic nightmare into a major safety concern.

“Specifically traffic conditions required Ft Lee officers to remain out on corners, managing traffic instead of attending to public safety issues,” Durando wrote in an e-mail on September 9, as traffic continued to back up.

Durando also expressed concerns about the “inability of emergency response vehicles … to traverse the borough while responding to emergencies.”

“Fort Lee is not happy,” Durando said in another e-mail.

In the e-mails it also appears Sokolich was initially blamed for the traffic debacle.

Sokolich said that Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police were telling residents of his Fort Lee community that he was responsible for the closures.

“Many members of the public have indicated to me that the 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,” Sokolich wrote in a September 12 letter to Baroni.

Christie, who has denied involvement in the bridge scandal, apologized to Sokolich in a meeting on Thursday after a news conference in which the governor said he knew nothing about suggestions that top appointees orchestrated the gridlock to punish the mayor politically for not supporting Christie for re-election.

The documents also suggest that Wildstein was aware that there might be political fallout from having helped orchestrate the traffic logjam. Before he resigned, Wildstein forwarded e-mails about the bridge lane closures in September from his official account to his personal Gmail.

On one occasion, Wildstein forwarded the e-mails after a member of his staff told him a Wall Street Journal reporter was asking questions about the lane closures.

He did the same when Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell sent a letter inquiring about traffic getting onto the bridge.

The documents also include e-mail messages between top officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that reveal that another senior Christie aide, Regina Egea, director of the authorities unit and a member of his senior staff, was aware of concerns the lane closures were not part of an ongoing traffic study.

Foye, the transportation agency’s executive director, wrote a scathing e-mail that expressed concerns the lane closures did not follow protocol and created “dangers to the public interest.”

Baroni, the Christie-appointed Port Authority deputy director, forwarded the e-mail to Egea three hours after it was sent on September 9.

Officials in New Jersey and New York were also angry and shocked that the lanes were shut during a Jewish holiday, according to the documents.

Scott Rechler, vice chairman of the board of commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, e-mailed other representatives on the transportation authority that he was disturbed that traffic was snarled “without regard to this being the Jewish high holiday weekend.” Rechler was appointed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“This is terribly disturbing and incomprehensive to me,” he wrote. “How can a decision like this be made without it being discussed and considered at the highest levels?”

The scandal forced an “embarrassed and humiliated” Christie to apologize over the alleged political retribution.

The scandal has rocked Christie’s administration and raised questions about how it might affect the popular Republican’s potential presidential candidacy.

Friday’s documents follow explosive e-mails released on Wednesday that identified key players and the basic outlines of the alleged scheme.

Christie denounced the effort as outrageous and not connected to him. He fired one of his top aides. Others identified as being involved have also left their jobs.

In addition to the legislative investigation, the scandal has prompted a review by federal prosecutors and triggered at least one lawsuit against Christie and those at the center of the storm.

Sokolich, the Democratic politician allegedly targeted because he didn’t endorse Christie’s re-election bid, said the tie-ups in September caused residents “misery and agony” in his town.

He met with Christie on Thursday and told CNN that the governor was gracious and that he accepted his apology. But Sokolich believes the matter is far from finished.

An uncharacteristically low-key Christie appeared chastened at a news conference before his meeting with Sokolich, and said he was stunned by the revelations.

Christie and his staff originally blamed traffic snafus on a transportation study they said had been mishandled.

Christie said he found out about the more troubling reason for the disruption on Wednesday when the e-mails surfaced publicly.

Christie’s political star hangs in the balance, with multiple investigations immediately clouding any future aspirations of a presidential run in 2016.

The e-mail exchanges began three weeks before access lanes to the bridge were closed, two months before Election Day.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, said in an e-mail to Wildstein, then the highest-level appointee representing the state at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The transportation agency operates the George Washington Bridge, which connects New York and New Jersey.

“Got it,” Wildstein replied.

Wildstein left his job in December and Kelly was fired this week..

The scheme unfolded from there, leading to traffic tie-ups from September 9-13.

In one e-mail from early December, Drewniak, the governor’s spokesman, and Wildstein made dinner plans.

“Can you do dinner in New Brunswick this evening?” asked Drewniak on December 4. Twenty minutes later, Wildstein wrote, “Sure, as long as short notice doesn’t inconvenience you.”

The next morning, Wildstein wrote Drewniak. “Thanks again for all your sound advice last night, I always appreciate your friendship.”

The e-mail did not detail the advice given to Wildstein.

On Thursday, Wildstein obeyed a judge’s order to appear before a state legislative committee. But he invoked his constitutional right to not testify.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the state legislator leading the investigation, has accused Christie of still holding back.

“We intend to continue our investigation, but this would all be made easier if Gov. Christie did the right thing and voluntarily released all communications so everyone could find out with certainty what happened,” Wisniewski said in a statement. “If he’s truly dedicated to transparency and the truth from here on out, he will take this step and cooperate fully with the committee’s work.”

The scandal threatens to imperil Christie’s presidential ambitions but has not necessarily derailed them, Oxford University historian Timothy Stanley wrote in an opinion piece for CNN.com.

“He’s a resourceful politician and it’s still many months before campaigning starts in earnest,” Stanley wrote. “But now, his opponents have a stick to beat him with.”