Wednesday, January 8, 2014 Last updated: Wednesday January 8, 2014, 11:46 AM
Bridget Anne Kelly, one of three deputies on Christie’s senior staff, with the governor.
Private messages between Governor’s Christie’s deputy chief of staff and two of his top executives at the Port Authority reveal a vindictive effort to create “traffic problems in Fort Lee” by shutting lanes to the George Washington Bridge and apparent pleasure at the resulting gridlock.
The Record’s coverage of the George Washington Bridge lane closures
The messages are replete with references and insults to Fort Lee’s mayor, who had failed to endorse Christie for re-election and they chronicle how local officials tried to reach the Port Authority in a vain effort to eliminate the paralyzing gridlock that overwhelmed his town of 35,000, which sits in the shadow of the bridge, the world’s busiest.
The documents obtained by The Record raise serious doubts about months of claims by the Christie administration that the September closures of local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge were part of a traffic study initiated solely by the Port Authority. Instead, they show that one of the governor’s top aides was deeply involved in the decision to choke off the borough’s access to the bridge, and they provide the strongest indication yet that it was part of a politically-motivated vendetta—a notion that Christie has publicly denied.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, one of three deputies on Christie’s senior staff, wrote to David Wildstein, a top Christie executive at the Port Authority, on Aug. 13, about three weeks before the closures. Wildstein, the official who ordered the closures and who resigned last month amid the escalating scandal, wrote back: “Got it.”
Other top Christie associates mentioned in or copied on the email chain, all after the top New York appointee at the authority ordered the lanes reopened, include David Samson, the chairman of the agency; Bill Stepien, Christie’s re-election campaign manager and the newly appointed state GOP chairman; and Michael Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman.
Christie has previously said that no one in his staff or campaign was involved in the lane closings, and he has dismissed questions about political retribution by joking that he moved the traffic cones himself.
But the private messages, mostly sent through personal e-mails accounts, indicate that Kelly, a senior staff member in the governor’s office, was involved in the planning and received updates during the week of the traffic jams. She was also informed that week that Christie’s executives at the Port Authority were ignoring the Fort Lee mayor’s desperate attempts to get a reason for the sudden unannounced closures, as the borough’s first responders struggled to respond to emergencies and buses arrived late on the first day of school.
On Sept. 9, the first morning of the lane closures, Kelly asked in an e-mail if Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s numerous calls to Port Authority officials had been returned.
“Radio silence,” Wildstein replied. “His name comes right after mayor Fulop,” an apparent reference to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who also said this week that the Christie administration had retaliated against him last year because he didn’t endorse the governor for re-election.
When reached Wednesday morning, Kelly said: “I’m literally in the middle of a conference call. “I’m going to have to call you right back.”
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the governor, declined to comment Wednesday.
The explosive documents, supplied by Wildstein in response to a subpoena issued by a panel of state lawmakers, don’t spell out the precise reason for the apparent retribution. But they lay bare a disdain for the mayor and an apparent indifference to the hardships suffered by North Jersey residents who sat in four-hour backups. Wildstein has been called to testify about the documents under oath before the panel tomorrow.
In one exchange of text messages on the second day of the lane closures, Wildstein alludes to messages the Fort Lee mayor had left complaining that school buses were having trouble getting through the traffic.
“Is it wrong that I’m smiling,” the recipient of the text message responded to Wildstein. The person’s identity is not clear because the documents are partially redacted for unknown reasons.
“No,” Wildstein wrote in response.
“I feel badly about the kids,” the person replied to Wildstein. “I guess.”
“They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein wrote, making a reference to Barbara Buono, the Democratic candidate for governor, who lost to Christie in a landslide in November.
The e-mails could prove a serious threat to Christie’s credibility at a time when he has emerged as a frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. And they are likely to raise questions about whether the governor’s office was involved in what Democrats have said was a coordinated cover-up that has stretched on for months, as damaging details slowly emerge.
The e-mails show that Trenton was aware of the Port Authority’s first public explanation of the sudden lane closures, which was that they were part of a traffic study.
On September 12, the fourth day of the lane closures, Wildstein e-mailed Kelly and Drewniak, a statement that was later issued by the Port Authority in response to inquiries by The Record. That statement read, in part: “The Port Authority is reviewing traffic safety patterns at the George Washington Bridge to ensure proper placement of toll lanes.” Since then, the governor and his representatives have described the closures as a study aimed at seeing if Fort Lee got more than its fair share of access lanes onto the bridge.
“The fact is, I didn’t know Fort Lee got three dedicated lanes until all this stuff happened, and I think we should review that entire policy because I don’t know why Fort Lee needs three dedicated lanes to tell you the truth,” Christie said at a Dec. 2 press conference. “And I didn’t even know it until this whole, you know, happening went about.”
He added later: “The fact that one town has three lanes dedicated to it, that kind of gets me sauced.”
The Port Authority is a bi-state agency jointly steered by the governors of New Jersey and New York.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top executive, Pat Foye, ordered an end to the lane closures after he first found out about them when The Record’s Road Warrior columnist John Cichowski called for an explanation, four days after they began. Foye was not informed of them in advance. Neither were Fort Lee officials or commuters.
At the time of Foye’s reversal, the public knew little about the behind-the-scenes disputes that were unfolding. New Jersey officials fumed, the records show.
On Sept. 13, the day of Foye’s reversal, Wildstein wrote to Kelly: “The New York side gave back Fort Lee all three lanes this morning. We are appropriately going nuts. Samson helping us to retaliate.”
David Samson, a close advisor to Christie who headed the governor’s gubernatorial transition committee four years ago, is the chairman of the Port Authority’s Board of Commissioners.
Four days later, as it became clearer that the lane closures were a surprise to local officials and police, the media began asking more questions. Wildstein sent a message to Bill Baroni, the deputy executive directory of the agency who was also appointed by Christie, on the afternoon of Sept. 17 telling him a Wall Street Journal reporter had called him on his cell phone.
“Jesus,” Baroni responded, before advising Wildstein to call Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman.
Christie’s campaign manager exchanged messages with Wildstein the next day, and he blamed the Fort Lee mayor.
“The mayor is an idiot,” Bill Stepien, Christie’s campaign manager, wrote to Wildstein on Sept. 18, in reaction to the Wall Street Journal story about local officials’ complaints.
“When (sic) some, lose some,” Stepien wrote.
Wildstein responded to Stepien: “It will be a tough November for this little Serbian,” an apparent reference to the Fort Lee mayor, who Baroni also referred to as “Serbia” in text messages.
Stepien was promoted earlier this week to chairman of the state Republican Party and is an advisor to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie now leads.
When a media report appeared in early October revealing that Foye, the New York appointee, had privately called the lane closures “abusive” and possibly illegal in an internal e-mail, Wildstein wrote to Stepien again. It was five weeks before the election. “I feel terrible that I’m causing you so much stress this close to November,” Wildstein wrote.
The bridge scandal did not pick up steam until after the election.
Baroni testified in late November, before the same legislative panel leading the investigation, that the lane closures were part of a traffic study. He was not under oath.
Baroni, the records show, was concerned about whether the governor’s office thought he performed well during his testimony on Nov. 25.
“You did great,” Wildstein wrote to Baroni.
“Trenton feedback?” Baroni asked in response.
“Good,” Wildstein responded.
“Just good? Shit.” Baroni replied.
Wildstein later clarified that three people in Trenton, who he referred to only by their first names, thought he did “great.”
Foye and two other Port Authority officials later testified under oath that Wildstein had ordered the closures on short notice, bypassing agency protocol, and that he had instructed a bridge employee to keep it a secret from Fort Lee officials.
Wildstein resigned on Dec. 6, calling the bridge scandal a distraction. Baroni resigned a little more than a week later.
An e-mail shows he had met with Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman two days earlier.
“Thanks again for all your sound advice last night, I always appreciate your friendship,” Wildstein wrote.
“Same to you, David, and thanks for a great dinner,” Drewniak responded.
As Wildstein was announcing his resignation later that week, Drewniak forwarded to Wildstein a statement he was releasing to a Record reporter.
The statement called Wildstein “a tireless advocate for New Jersey’s interests at the Port Authority” and expressed gratitude for his “commitment and dedication.”
Drewniak informed Wildstein that the governor had personally reviewed the statement.
“This was my revised [statement]—which I sent to the Gov and he approved …”
Timeline of events
As soon as motorists were stuck in massive traffic jams – blockages that forced Fort Lee and surrounding towns into gridlock for days – many questioned why. The public was told that local lanes leading up to the George Washington Bridge were closed as part of a traffic study by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Since then, lawmakers have held hearings, subpoenaed witnesses and documents, and two top appointees have resigned. Governor Christie has faced months of questions about the incident. Here is a timeline of events based on emails, text messages and other documents obtained by The Record, as well as public statements by Christie and others.
The timeline was compiled by Staff Writers Melissa Hayes and John Reitmeyer of the State House Bureau.
Bridget Kelly, Governor Christie’s deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, uses her personal Gmail account to contact David Wildstein, one of two Christie appointees at the Port Authority. Her email contains one line: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Wildstein replies one minute later with two words: “Got it,” according to emails obtained by The Record.
Wildstein emails Kelly and asks her to call about Fort Lee.
Kelly responds in an email that she will call him that day.
Wildstein in an email tells Kelly he will call her Monday to “let you know how Fort Lee goes.”
Two local access lanes from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge are closed, snarling traffic on the first day of school. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich calls the office of Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director of the Port Authority who was appointed by Christie. Baroni’s special assistant Matthew Bell sends Baroni an email stating in the subject line that Sokolich called with an “urgent matter of public safety in Fort Lee” and includes a phone number where the mayor can be reached.
Baroni sends the email to Wildstein, who forwards it to Kelly, copies obtained by The Record show. Kelly then responds, asking if Baroni called Sokolich. Wildstein replies, “Radio silence. His name comes right after Mayor Fulop.” Kelly responds, “Ty,” an abbreviation for thank you.
Wildstein is referring to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. Fulop told The Record on Monday that Christie’s political team approached him about endorsing the governor and after he declined, meetings he had scheduled with 10 state officials were abruptly canceled. Christie secured the backing of 61 elected Democrats; that bipartisan support coupled with his landslide Election Day victory has catapulted him into the national spotlight as a potential GOP presidential nominee.
Fulop’s allegations come after several people have questioned whether the George Washington Bridge lane closures were political retribution against Sokolich, who also did not endorse Christie. Sokolich has declined to comment about whether he was asked to support the governor.
Sokolich sends Baroni a text message when the lanes remain closed for a second day.
“Presently we have four very busy traffic lanes merging into only one toll booth,” the text message reads, according to documents obtained by The Record. “The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help please. It’s maddening.”
Wildstein sends an email to Kelly’s personal account and the state email address of Michael Drewniak, Christie’s press secretary, in the afternoon regarding the lane closures in Fort Lee, according to an email obtained by The Record.
“The Port Authority is reviewing traffic safety patterns at the George Washington Bridge to ensure proper placement of toll lanes,” it reads. “The PAPD has been in contact with Fort Lee police throughout this transition.”
Three hours later, according to the documents obtained by The Record, Baroni sends a text message that appears to refer to Sokolich: “From Serbia: My frustration is now trying to figure out who is mad at me.” It’s unclear who Baroni was sending the message to. “Serbia” is also used several times in the documents and appears to be a reference to Sokolich.
The Record’s Road Warrior columnist John Chicowski details the days of traffic nightmares that snarled Fort Lee and the surrounding communities. Commuters waited hours, many giving up in frustration. School buses – heading in for the first days of the new year – were stuck for hours. Police struggled to keep vehicles moving. Emergency crews fought against the manmade tide to ferry patients with the clock ticking and the traffic not moving.
“Other than after the 9/11 attacks, I’ve never seen such a fiasco of delays at the inbound, upper-level part of the bridge,” said Ridgefield‘s Mildred Van Zwaren, who teaches in Upper Manhattan.
Local officials were in the dark. “Normally, we have good relations with the New Jersey command of the Port Authority police,” Fort Lee Police Chief Keith Bendul said, “but they tell us they don’t know what’s going on either.”
In the documents obtained by The Record, Robert Durando, the manager of the George Washington Bridge, forwards to Wildstein an email he received from Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, a New York appointee, asking that Durando call him. Wildstein responds in an email asking Durando to tell him what Foye says. About 30 minutes later Durando responds: “He asked about the test. He asked why he wasn’t told.”
Wildstein responds that Foye’s staff was aware of the closures and that “bb” – an apparent reference to Baroni – would contact him.
Hours later, documents obtained by The Record show, Wildstein sends another email, this one to Kelly, saying “The New York side gave Fort Lee back all three lanes this morning. We are appropriately going nuts. Samson helping us to retaliate.” David Samson is chairman of the Port Authority’s Board of Commissioners. Christie appointed him to the board. When Kelly questions the situation Wildstein responds, “Yes, unreal. Fixed now.”
Foye later says at a legislative hearing that the first he learned of the lane closures was when Chichowski called him.
Baroni sends a text message to Wildstein forwarding a message from Sokolich, whom he again refers to as Serbia, according to the documents obtained by The Record. The mayor’s message reads: “We should talk. Someone needs to tell me that the recent traffic debacle was not punitive in nature. The last four reporters that contacted me suggest that the people they are speaking with absolutely believe it to be punishment. Try as I may to dispel these rumors I am having a tough time. A private face-to-face would be important to me. Perhaps someone can enlighten me as to the errors of my ways. Let me know if you’ll give me 10 minutes. Regards Mark.”
Baroni then sends Wildstein another message, “Serbia??” apparently asking how he should respond. Wildstein texts back that he has not yet heard from Kelly. He then says he plans to speak with her soon. Baroni suggest they “schedule a meeting to stave off reporters” and they then discuss dates.
Wildstein then tells Baroni that Wall Street Journal reporter Tedd Mann called his cellphone. Baroni replies, “Jesus,” then tells Wildstein to call Drewniak, Christie’s press secretary.
Wildstein sends a story by Mann and Wall Street Journal reporter Heather Haddon questioning the cause of the Fort Lee traffic jam to Christie’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, according to documents obtained by The Record. Stepien replies in an email, “It’s fine. The mayor is an idiot. When [sic] some, lose some.” Wildstein then tells Stepien he is prepared to take empty boxes to his office “just in case” and adds “It will be a tough November for this little Serbian,” apparently referring to Sokolich.
Baroni sends Wildstein a text message asking for the “exact number of upper-level lanes from tomorrow” and Wildstein responds that he will take the George Washington Bridge on his way to work.
Baroni sends Wildstein a text message asking about a toll chart.
Baroni appears before the Assembly Transportation Committee and tells lawmakers that the lane closures were part of a traffic study. He brings with him a large photograph of the toll plaza which he draws on as he explains that the traffic study was trying to determine whether Fort Lee needed three dedicated access lanes to the bridge.
Later that day Baroni sends Wildstein a text message, asking “Trenton feedback,” according to documents obtained by The Record. When Wildstein tells him “good,” Baroni replies, “Just good? Shit.”
Wildstein says he has only sent text messages to Kelly and a woman named Nicole who were “VERY happy.” He adds, “Both said you are doing great” and that someone named Charlie also said Baroni did well.
Wildstein sends Stepien another story by Mann, this one about Foye being angry over the lane closures, according to documents obtained by The Record. The Wall Street Journal obtained a copy of a letter Foye sent to agency executives Sept. 13 saying he was unaware of the lane closures until he was contacted by the media. The Record questioned officials at the agency about the closures on Sept. 12 for a story that was published the next day. Foye said in his letter that the agency’s processes were “wrongfully subverted and the public interest damaged.”
Stepien replies, “I saw. Ultimately not an awful story. Whatever.” But Wildstein responds raising concern about Foye “messing with us 5 weeks before election.” He says that he and Baroni will be at the State House for a meeting about a train bringing New York City garbage through Westfield and East Brunswick – which he calls a “very bad idea” – and says he will talk to Drewniak and Kelly while he is there.
“I feel terrible that I’m causing you so much stress this close to November,” Wildstein writes in closing to Stepien. Stepien replies that he likes Wildstein better now than he did in 2009, the first time Christie ran for governor. At that time, Wildstein was the anonymous editor of the political blog Politickernj.com.
Governor Christie holds a news conference to announce several administrative staffing changes as he heads into a second term, including the elevation of Chief of Staff Kevin O’Dowd to Attorney General. He announces that Kelly will remain as a deputy chief of staff. She had replaced Stepien in that role in April when he went to work on the campaign in April.
“Bridget Kelly, who unexpectedly was taken out of the State House today on another commitment, will also stay on as the deputy chief of staff for intergovernmental and legislative affairs, and Bridget has expressed her willingness to continue on in the second term and I’m happy that Bridget will stay onboard as well,” Christie says.
He is asked if he had anything to do with the lane closures and responds with sarcasm: “I moved the cones, actually, unbeknownst to everybody,” he says.
Christie also speaks extensively on Baroni’s earlier explanation that the Port Authority was trying to determine if Fort Lee needed so many access lanes.
“The fact is, I didn’t know Fort Lee got three dedicated lanes until all this stuff happened, and I think we should review that entire policy because I don’t know why Fort Lee needs three dedicated lanes to tell you the truth, and I didn’t even know it until this whole, you know, happening went about, so my urging to the Port Authority is to begin a review of the whole policy. Because I’ve sat in that traffic, before I was governor, at the George Washington Bridge, and the fact that one town has three lanes dedicated to it, that kind of gets me sauced.”
He continues: “I do believe, and I told Chairman Samson this, that we should look at this policy because I don’t know why one town gets three lanes. One lane? Maybe. Three lanes, for one town, I don’t quite get it.”
He also dismisses the Assembly hearings on the issue: “All of this is politics on the Legislature’s part, they’re just looking for something, you know, that’s what they do.”
Wildstein sends Drewniak an email on his personal account thanking him for his “sound advice last night,” adding, “I always appreciate your friendship,” according to documents obtained by The Record. He also writes that he spoke to state Sen. Kevin O’Toole, an ally of the governor’s, and that the senator would speak to Drewniak later in the day.
Drewniak thanks Wildstein for “a great dinner” in an email, according to the documents obtained by The Record.
Wildstein announces he will resign from his position at the Port Authority at the end of the year.
Drewniak forwards Wildstein a statement he sent to Record reporter Shawn Boburg for a story about the resignation. Drewniak called Wildstein “a tireless advocate for New Jersey’s interest at the Port Authority.” In his email, which was obtained by The Record, Drewniak tells Wildstein that his revised statement was approved by Christie.
The Assembly Transportation Committee holds a hearing on the lane closures, which Foye and Durando testify at. During the hearing Durando says he was ordered by Wildstein to circumvent longstanding protocols, which called for local officials to be notified of traffic studies and lane closures. He says he thought Wildstein’s directive was wrong but that he feared the consequences of defying one of Christie’s appointees.
Christie announces that Baroni is resigning and that Wildstein will leave his position immediately. Christie is asked at a press conference whether the lane closures were related to Sokolich and political retaliation.
“He was not somebody that was on my radar screen in any way, politically, professionally, or in any other way until these stories came out in the aftermath of the closing,” Christie says. “So the answer is absolutely unequivocally not.
Later on when asked a follow up question about his staff, he said “”I have spoken to everyone on my staff and asked anybody around here and my campaign manager if they knew anything more about this that we didn’t already know and they told me no,” Christie said. “
“The chief of staff and chief counsel assured me they feel comfortable that we have all the information we need to have.”
During another State House news conference, Christie discusses the bridge issue and claims that it was politically motivated. He again dismisses them.
“I don’t ever remember even meeting the mayor of Fort Lee and I certainly don’t remember getting any briefings at any time from the campaign staff that this was someone who was on our radar screen as a potential endorsement so that’s why none of this makes any sense to me. I think in the end what it will be shown to be is just rank speculation from folks who want to play political games.”