TRENTON, NJ—Governor Chris Christie announced the firing of one of his closest aides this morning, the third appointee of his to fall victim to an embarrassing scandal involving a purposeful traffic jam caused to punish a local politician.
On September 9, two of three toll booths serving an onramp to the George Washington Bridge were blocked by cones and re-assigned to serve through traffic. This caused traffic to back up throughout the nearby town of Fort Lee.
The new traffic pattern continued to wreak havoc for four days.
Accusations began to fly that those closures were made for political reasons. Until the scandal, Christie was a leading Republican candidate for President of the United States in 2016, but he was running for re-election as governor at the time.
The mayor of Fort Lee happens to be a Democrat, and he refused to endorse Christie for re-election.
Christie, along with New York's governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, appoints the directors of the Port Authority of NY and NJ, which operates the bridge, and several others, as well as airports, seaports, trains and subways in the region.
Christie initially denied his office was involved in the closures, but apologized this morning, saying he was "embarrassed and humiliated." He fired one of his three deputy chiefs of staff this morning.
The scandal had already claimed the careers of two executives Christe appointed to lucrative positions at the authority. The two men taken down include David Wildstein, who made a $150,000 salary and founded the PolitickerNJ.com news website, and former State Sen. Bill Baroni, who earned a $289,000 salary as NJ's top official at the authority.
Both were forced to resign as the scandal heated up in December.
On August 13, Christie's deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly emailed Wildstein an ominous message that implicates Christie's office: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
Wildstein responded, "Got it."
But the messages were released yesterday include more damning evidence of the purposeful traffic jam, and attempts to cover up the process behind the abrupt change.
Wildstein responded "No" to someone who asked if it was wrong for them to be smiling about the traffic headaches caused.
Wildstein was told by the same person, "I feel badly about the kids. I guess."
Wildstein responded, "They are the children of Buono voters," referring to Christie's opponent in the November election.
SAYREVILLE ASSEMBLYMAN LED INVESTIGATION EFFORTS
The text messages and emails, which officials obviously thought would be kept secret, were made public yesterday thanks to a subpoena from the Assembly Transportation Committee, which has been investigating the matter.
John Wisniewski, a Sayreville Assemblyman who chairs that committee, has been leading the charge to investigate this matter.
Along with Loretta Weinberg, who represents Fort Lee in the Assembly, Democratic legislators effectively held Christie's feet to the fire as the controversy grew into a national story.
After the closures, Sokolich claimed that Christie was retaliating against him. Hardly anything was thought of this charge until December, when the Transportation Committee forced several Port Authority officials to testify publicly.
Baroni was Christie's top staffer at the authority and is likely to be replaced Deborah Gramiccioni, a longtime employee of Christie. Her New York counterpart, the Port Authority's executive director, is Patrick Foye, an appointee of Gov. Cuomo.
Foye contradicted testimony from Baroni and Wildstein when he said he was not aware of any traffic study closing two lanes of the bridge.
More damaging testimony came from Robert Durando, the general manager of the George Washington Bridge. He has worked for the Port Authority for 30 years, and he called the lane closures unprecedented. Durando also recalled that David Wildstein asked him not to tell Fort Lee officials about the lane closures.
Normally, the headache caused by this study might have led to complaining to the Port Authority, perhaps causing a stir in public transportation circles, and leading to pledges at a meeting to help fix the problem. However, another dynamic entered into the mix: politics.
The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, is a Democrat. Both Cuomo and Christie are widely considered a potential presidential candidates in 2016.
Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, is also investigating the controversy, and so are New Jersey state lawmakers.
TRAFFIC JAMS CAUSED MAJOR PROBLEMS IN FORT LEE
As Wildstein's texts indicate, traffic cleared up along Hudson Terrace by 10:50 am, but it was still heavy in the vicinity of Martha Washington Way. Route 95 traffic had also resumed flowing somewhat freely by that time.
Overall congestion from the morning rush hour reportedly did not clear up until 11:45 AM. The traffic gridlock resumed when the next morning's rush hour rolled around.
That first day, emergency medical personnel were delayed in responding to a car accident where four people were injured, and encountered difficulty reaching a 91-year-old woman, who later died.
It was also the first day of the school year in Fort Lee and thousands of students were late to school due to the traffic jams.
Bill Baroni texted at 7:53 AM on September 10 to report, "Presently we have four very busy traffic lanes merging into only one toll booth…The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help please. It's maddening."
Wildstein texted back, "So I-95 traffic broke about 5 minutes ago, about 45 minutes earlier than usual, because there are two additional lanes to handle morning rush."
Communication between Wildstein and Kelly shows that the Fort Lee Mayor was ignored as he persistently reached out for help.
"Radio silence. His name comes up right after mayor Fulop," wrote Wildstein, referring to Jersey City's Mayor.
COVERUP MAY BE WORSE THAN THE CRIME
At first, the Port Authority offered a reason for daily traffic jams: They needed to conduct a traffic study to see if the Fort Lee onramp really needed three dedicated toll booths.
Wildstein emailed Kelly and the Governor's spokesman Michael Drewniak on September 12, "The Port Authority is reviewing traffic safety patterns at the George Washington Bridge to ensure proper placement of toll lanes. The PAPD has been in contact with Fort Lee police throughout this transition."
September 13 saw the uglier side of Wildstein return, after New York officials at the authority caught wind of the problems in Fort Lee.
Wildstein emailed Bridget Anne Kelley at 11:44 am, "The New York side gave Fort Lee back all three lanes this morning. We are appropriately going nuts."
"Samson helping us to retaliate," Wildstein continued, referring to another Christie appointee at the Port Authority.
But the Bergen Record uncovered documents that showed the Port Authority was well aware of the devastating impact such changes would have on Fort Lee's surface streets.
According to a letter from Fort Lee's Mayor Mark Sokolich sent during the jams, "Fort Lee has always had to deal with the extraordinary traffic problems caused by the George Washington Bridge ('GWB'); however, lately the traffic has reached unbearable status and without some assistance from the Port Authority, Fort Lee will be in a perpetual state of emergency."
Sokolich noted that Fort Lee had asked for police help from the Port Authority to manage the congestion, but the Port Authority did not send police.
Christie also announced today that his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, would no longer be a part of his "organization." Stepien was in line to become the Chairman of the NJ Republican Party, but Christie asked him to remove his name from the running.
On October 2, Stepien emailed Wildstein with harsh words for the Fort Lee Mayor after a Wall Street Journal article was published about the growing controversy.
"The mayor's an idiot," read the message. He also sent a private message in support of Wildstein: "For what it’s worth, I like you more on October 2, 2013 than I did on October 2, 2009."
Wildstein responded, "Yeah, but we need to address leaks from Foye and his meeting with us 5 weeks before election. Baroni and I are at statehouse this afternoon.
"I feel terrible that I'm causing you so much stress this close to November," said Wildstein.