Documents reveal anger, chaos in Christie bridge scandal

TRENTON, New Jersey Sat Jan 11, 2014 9:10am EST

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie reacts during a news conference in Trenton January 9, 2014. REUTERS-Carlo Allegri
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie reacts during a news conference in Trenton January 9, 2014.  CREDIT: REUTERS/CARLO ALLEGRI

(Reuters) – Documents related to the bridge closure scandal engulfing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie revealed on Friday that authorities were deeply divided about the shutdown, with one warning it was illegal and risking people’s lives.

More than 1,000 pages of anxiously awaited documents subpoenaed by New Jersey lawmakers investigating the massive, four-day traffic jam on the George Washington bridge were made public after revelations that Christie’s staff appeared to have orchestrated the closure as political payback.

Christie, seen as a likely contender for the White House in 2016, has said he knew nothing about the plan until damaging emails from his staff were revealed on Wednesday. He fired a close aide and publicly apologized for the fiasco.

The documents, many subpoenaed from former Port Authority executive David Wildstein, cast new light on the turmoil within the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency overseeing the nation’s busiest bridge.

On the fourth day of the shutdown, Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority, lashed out in an email to executives, including Port Authority Chairman David Samson, and ordered the lanes reopened.

“I believe this hasty and ill-advised decision violates Federal Law and the laws of both states,” Foye said in the email.

“I pray that no life has been lost or trip of a hospital- or hospice-bound patient delayed,” said Foye of the traffic jam that delayed ambulances, including one called for a 91-year-old woman who later died.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who chairs the Transportation Committee, said the documents raise more questions than they answer about whether Christie knew about the traffic tie-up.

“Included in these documents is a reference to what appears to be a meeting between Port Authority Chairman David Samson and the governor one week before Bridget Kelly issued the order to cause ‘traffic problems’ in Fort Lee,” Wisniewski said in a statement.

“By submitting these documents, Mr. Wildstein is telling us they are related to the lane closures in some way. The question that demands answering is – how?”

The documents show chaos and anger, but fail to clear up whether the epic tie-up was the result of what Christie said may have been a Port Authority traffic study.

In a September 6 email, Port Authority executive Daniel Jacobs, general manager of transportation, asked Gerard Quelch, in charge of planning and operations: “What is driving this?”

Quelch responded: “That is my question as well. A single toll operation invites potential disaster… It seems like we are punishing all for the sake of a few.”

What is clear is that Port Authority police and bridge authorities had little advance notice of the shutdown, which they warned would paralyze Fort Lee, where three major roadways converge in an approach to the bridge.

“The ‘test’ was a monumental failure. Fort Lee is not happy,” Bob Durando, director of the bridge, wrote in an email to a Port Authority traffic engineer.

There also appears to have been a concerted effort to keep the matter quiet. On the day he ordered the lanes reopened, Foye in an email told Wildstein’s boss, Bill Baroni: “We are going to fix this fiasco.”

Baroni wrote back: “I’m on my way to the office to discuss. There can be no public discourse.”

Foye’s response: “Bill that’s precisely the problem: There has been no public discourse on this.”

Christie said he was “blindsided” by the revelation that Kelly called for trouble at the commuter choke point, apparently to retaliate against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not having endorsed Christie’s re-election campaign.

Christie had counted on his victory in November to show bipartisan appeal to increase his chances of winning his party’s nomination for president, political experts have said.

Any implication in the documents released on Friday that Christie or his staff knew more about the plot than they have acknowledged could cause the scandal to dog Christie.

“He’s not fully in control of this story anymore,” said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University. “Because he took such a firm stand yesterday and was emphatic that this was it, any information that shows otherwise will continue the story and force him to put more time on it.”

Christie has long cultivated an image as a brash, tough-talking leader willing to buck his party for the good of his constituents. On Thursday, however, he took a more humble tone, saying: “I am not a bully.”

U.S. attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman, whose job Christie held before being elected governor, has opened an investigation into the decision to close the bridge lanes.

The governor also faces a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court on Thursday by Rosemarie Arnold, a lawyer charging that area residents suffered financially from being trapped in traffic.

Wildstein has admitted to ordering the lane closures and resigned his post. Appearing before the panel on Thursday, he declined to answer questions, invoking the constitutional protection not to say anything that might incriminate him.

Christie cut ties with a senior adviser and fired his then deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, who wrote to Wildstein in August: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein, a Christie appointee, replied: “Got it.”

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Bernard Vaughan, Marina Lopes, James Lunt, Zach Cook, Hillary Russ; Writing by Scott Malone and Barbara Goldberg; editing by Gunna Dickson)

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