Update, 4:35 p.m.: Christie has issued a statement denying all involvement in the controversy, and pledging to hold his staffers responsible. We’ve reprinted it in full at the end of this post.
If you were on Twitter earlier today, you might have noticed every reporter on the planet hyperventilating and repeating a number of words, chief among them “Chris Christie,” “emails,” and “traffic.”
Oh, Jesus. Traffic? This sounds like one of those Important Civic Stories You Should Care About, a sort of eat-your-vegetables infrastructure deal, more soporific than a pound of Ambien and half your freshman reading list. Who gives a damn about this stuff besides transportation nerds and journalists, the two lowest lifeforms?
In fact, though, you’re watching a tremendously entertaining little scandal in progress, featuring the governor of New Jersey, some deeply incriminating emails, and an ex-blogger and former small-town mayor who, with Christie’s help, turned into one of the most powerful men at the Port Authority, and then used that position to extract mind-bogglingly petty revenge on his political enemies. It also has Chris Christie’s top aides laughing at school buses full of stranded children. Let’s get caught up, shall we?
Wait, so what happened?
On September 9, the first day of school, Fort Lee, New Jersey was snarled in a massive traffic jam, after two local access lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge were abruptly closed. Just one lane remained open. Fort Lee became a parking lot for the better part of a week. It was unpleasant. So unpleasant, in fact, that New Jersey State Assembly Member John Wisniewksi called a hearing in November, demanding an explanation from Bill Barroni, the Port Authority Deputy Executive Director on the New Jersey side, and his top aide, David Wildstein.
He called a hearing? Because of a traffic jam? Overreact much?
Yes, he did call a hearing, and no, it wasn’t really an overreaction. Wisniewski, and pretty much everyone else looking at the Fort Lee knew lane closures this deliberately inconvenient had to have originated from somewhere.
David Wildstein, the second-in-command New Jersey guy at the Port Authority, told state lawmakers at the November hearing that the lane closures were due to a “traffic study,” echoing an earlier press release from the Port Authority. The problem: nobody at the Port Authority besides Christie’s guys knew about this planned “traffic study.” Not, for example, Pat Foye, the Port Authority’s Executive Director, who reportedly flew into a rage upon hearing about them. According to WNYC, Foye “charged in a heated email that the closures were made without proper public notice, in possible violation of the law, and, in fact, without his knowledge. He immediately reversed the closures.”
The Port Authority Chairman, David Samson, had nothing whatsoever to say, declining to talk to reporters and skipping press conferences for two full months after the Fort Lee debacle. That looked odd, too, because Samson is a close friend and adviser to Chris Christie.
I’m getting bored. Where does the petty political revenge stuff come in?
Right, let’s get to that. As it turns out, according to emails obtained by North Jersey newspaper The Record through an open records request, the lane closures were planned by Wildstein and a top Christie aide named Bridget Anne Kelly. She’s one of Christie’s three deputy chiefs of staff. The traffic jams, according to messages exchanged between Wildstein and Kelly, were a retaliatory move against Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, who’d declined to endorse Christie’s re-election bid.
According to the emails the Record obtained, Kelly wrote to Wildstein on August 13 at 7:34 a.m., telling him, “Time to create some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
“Got it,” Wildstein replied.
Kelly and Wildstein went back and forth until mid-September, when Wildstein wrote: “We are ready to do this. Can you have someone call the Mayor of Springfield and tell him that Gov has approved $60k for their traffic study.”
In other words, a guy from the Port Authority is telling the governor’s top aide what the governor has approved, and what he’s approved will create a massive traffic jam, under the guise of “studying” traffic in a neighboring town.
Yeah. It’s shady.
How long did it take the mayor of Fort Lee to start freaking out?
Not long. The traffic became snarled before 7 a.m. on September 9. That day, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich called the office of Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director of the Port Authority who was appointed by Christie. Apparently he told a Barroni aide there was an “urgent public safety matter” in Fort Lee and asked where he could reach the man.
Baroni forwarded the message to Wildstein, who forwarded it to Kelly. Kelly asked if Baroni had called the mayor back.
“Radio silence,” Wildstein replied, “His name comes right after Mayor Fulop.” Kelly responded “Ty,” an abbreviation for thank you.
According to The Record, Wildstein is referring to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. Fulop told the paper this week that Christie’s political team ” approached him about endorsing the governor.” After he said no, “meetings he had scheduled with 10 state officials were abruptly cancelled.”
By September 10, Sokolich was sending frantic text messages to Barroni.
“Presently we have four very busy traffic lanes merging into only one toll booth….” he texted Barroni. “The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help please it’s maddening.”
We have the exact text of that message, because Wildstein gleefully texted it to someone, whose name has been redacted in the documents the Record got.
“Is it wrong that I’m smiling” the person wrote back.
“No,” Wildstein responded.
“I feel badly about the kids, I guess,” the person responded.
“They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein replied. That’s a reference to Barbara Buono, Christie’s Democratic opponent this time around, who lost to Christie back in November.
Wow, this Wildstein guy sounds like kind of a dick.
Is that a question or a statement? Either way, yeah. He was mayor of Livingston, New Jersey in the late 1980s. But he became better known over next decade under his nom-de-blog Wally Edge, delivering cutting edge Jersey politics scoops. He was unmasked in June 2010, not long after he took the Port Authority job, which pays $215,000.
Once he was installed at the Port Authority, according to a 2012 Record article, he quickly became known as a Christie guy (a stooge, if we’re being less nice):
Longtime employees, however, privately describe a man intent on carrying out a political agenda rather than one built on reform or improving the region’s transportation system. They believe the appointment of Wildstein and dozens of others recommended by the governor — for jobs ranging from toll collector to deputy executive director — are evidence that political loyalty trumps merit.
In December, as the heat around the Fort Lee mess started to build, Wildstein announced he would resign from the Port Authority.
But he’s not out of the woods yet; he’s been subpoenaed to appear tomorrow before a New Jersey House legislative committee in charge of transportation and public works. There, he’ll have to answer questions “concerning the decision by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to reduce, without prior public notice, the number of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey from September 9, 2013 through September 13, 2013.” That’s according to the announcement of the hearing posted on the New Jersey’s legislature’s website.
The hearing is set for noon. Should be fun.
So how does all of this affect Chris Christie?
That’s the biggest question, and you’re very astute for asking it, invisible reader.
Christie denied knowing anything whatsoever about the Fort Lee mess for weeks. He joked about it in a press conference, in fact, telling reporters, “I moved the cones actually unbeknownst to everybody.”
The Democratic National Committee made that joke into a centerpiece of a new video about what they’ve dubbed “Bridgegate.” Democrats are clearly hoping the debacle will make Christie look like a petty jerk, taking a little momentum away from his possible presidential run.
Good god, what a mess. What can we learn from this?
The main takeaway is this: if you’re planning to do something jerky and illegal to get back at your political foes, maybe don’t write it all down. Pick up the phone. Pay a visit. Send a carrier pigeon. Or don’t cover your tracks at all, because as we can see here, it makes for some delightful reading.
Update, 4:35 p.m.: Christie’s full statement is on the following page:
From the Governor’s office:
What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.