New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s appointees worked furiously to conceal an apparent act of political retaliation in September that shut down a pair of local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge and paralyzed the small city of Fort Lee, N.J., according to a new trove of documents released Friday.
Inside the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the government agency that controls the bridge, Christie’s top lieutenants ignored complaints from Fort Lee’s police chief and angry rush-hour commuters. One woman called asking why the agency was playing God with people’s jobs.
The appointees instructed subordinates to stonewall reporters and produced a traffic study examining whether closing the lanes permanently might improve traffic flow. The study’s conclusion: TBD, shorthand for to be determined.
The traffic mayhem in Fort Lee burst into a full-bore political scandal this week after revelations that some of the governor’s closest allies were involved. The episode – featuring powerful state functionaries gleefully wreaking havoc on commuters – has quickly become a serious threat to Christie’s prospects as a leading Republican presidential candidate in 2016.
The hundreds of pages of emails and internal documents released Friday afternoon show for the first time how Christie loyalists inside the Port Authority worked to orchestrate a cover-up after traffic mayhem swiftly arrived in Fort Lee on Sept. 9.
The emails also reveal the extent to which Christie’s appointees kept their Port Authority colleagues and Fort Lee officials in the dark about their plans. In one example, Darcy Licorish of the Port Authority Police Department, who was tasked with helping direct motorists, wrote that her managers would not tell her whether the lane closures would be permanent or temporary.
The newly released emails do not appear to implicate Christie directly – and still do not definitively answer why the plot to strangle traffic in Fort Lee was hatched. But the records shed additional light on how the lane closures were carried out, following emails and text messages released Wednesday suggesting that the traffic jams may have been an act of political revenge against Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich.
In an emotional news conference Thursday, Christie apologized repeatedly and said he had been blindsided by his loyalists. He fired deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, a key architect of the lane closures plot, and banished Bill Stepien, his closest political adviser and campaign manager, for his role in the episode.
The emails released Friday detail a turf battle inside the Port Authority between two of Christie’s top appointees, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, and officials installed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.
Early on Sept. 13 Patrick Foye, the agency’s executive director and a Cuomo appointee, emailed Baroni and other senior Port Authority officials to say he was appalled by the dangers created to the public interest. Foye said he believed that the hasty and ill-advised decision may have violated federal and state law, and he ordered the lanes reopened immediately.
Twenty minutes later, at 8:04 a.m., traffic was restored to all three lanes, and Fort Lee’s gridlock nightmare was over.
Foye asked other officials how they would get word out to the public. We are going to fix this fiasco, Foye wrote.
That’s when Baroni balked. There can be no public discourse, Baroni wrote to Foye.
Bill that’s precisely the problem: there has been no public discourse on this, Foye responded.
Baroni and Wildstein both resigned late last year as the bridge scandal began to escalate.