TRENTON, N.J. — 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 coverup 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 on 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, after four straight days of lane closures, 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.
The documents – obtained by subpoena by Democratic lawmakers from Wildstein and others – include a reference to a meeting between Christie and David Samson, the man he appointed as chairman of the Port Authority. The meeting took place about a week before Kelly issued an August order to Wildstein, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
State Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who chairs the Assembly Transportation Committee, said that by submitting documents referring to the Christie-Samson meeting, Wildstein has signaled that it is related to the lane closures.
Throughout the fall, local reporters peppered Steve Coleman, the Port Authority’s spokesman, with questions about the lane closings.
On Oct. 9, Philippe Danielides, a senior adviser to Samson, emailed Wildstein a summary of that day’s news media stories and wrote, “Has any thought been given to writing an op-ed or providing a statement about the GWB study? Or is the plan just to hunker down and grit our way through it?”
Wildstein’s three-word reply: “Yes and yes.” He later forwarded the exchange to Baroni.
Rush-hour traffic on the George Washington Bridge is rarely smooth, but the cache of emails shows how ugly it got on the first day of the lane closures. Wildstein watched the mayhem he helped mastermind from the scene, texting detailed updates on Monday’s rush-hour traffic congestion in Fort Lee, the documents show.
Orange cones were set out before the sun rose blocking two of the bridge’s three local access lanes and forcing commuters to merge into one painfully slow toll lane. There was nowhere special for “EZ-Pass” drivers; everyone waited to pay the $13 toll in the “CASH” lane.
Two separate queues stretched down Fort Lee’s narrow streets for half a mile until noon each day. At 10 a.m., an estimated 550 vehicles were lined up in Fort Lee awaiting access to the bridge, according to the Port Authority’s traffic study.
Over a four-hour period, a total of 2,800 hours were lost to traffic delay, the study said.