Three years before the intentional traffic jams that crippled his small New Jersey town, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich sat down with Governor Chris Christie for a lunch of beef tenderloin in a cream sauce with a salad.
Christie, a rising Republican star, wanted to discuss plans to cap property taxes and control municipal costs, Sokolich said. Joining them in Princeton at Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion, was a fellow Democrat, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, said Sokolich, as well as another mayor whose name he couldn’t recall. The meal was “very meaningful,” he said.
“It’s not often you have a captive audience with the governor,” said Sokolich, 50, in his Borough Hall office. “I was impressed. He was very focused. We shared in common what we thought to be the biggest problems confronting New Jersey.”
That meal began a relationship that included two Sokolich trips to holiday parties at Drumthwacket and other brief, public encounters, the mayor said. Their ties almost ruptured when Christie aides and appointees closed two of three local lanes to the George Washington Bridge, snarling traffic in Fort Lee from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12. The mystery of who ordered the tie-ups -- and why -- has tarnished Christie’s prospects for a White House run in 2016. State lawmakers and U.S. prosecutors are investigating.
The U.S. attorney in New Jersey is also probing claims by Zimmer that Christie’s administration linked Hurricane Sandy aid to approval of a development. Christie, 51, denies that claim and says he had nothing to do with the traffic jams in Fort Lee.
Sokolich said he believes the tie-ups were payback for his not backing the re-election of Christie last fall. The closures began without warning on the Monday that school began for the year. No one directly told Sokolich why Christie’s allies put more traffic in a town abutting the bridge to Manhattan, stretching some 30-minute trips into four-hour ordeals, he said.
“I was helpless, I was scared, and I was nervous,” he said. “All I kept hearing about was it was about me. I gave my police chief a directive that his only function was to keep order and safety and to find out what this is all about. He told me on Monday morning, ‘Mayor, I’m hearing this is about you.’”
The state Legislature, which Democrats control, released e-mails and texts on Jan. 9 that upended Christie’s world. On Aug. 13, his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, wrote to David Wildstein, a Christie ally at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote. “Got it,” Wildstein said.
Starting on Sept. 9, Sokolich’s urgent phone calls and messages to Bill Baroni, Christie’s top appointee at the Port Authority, drew no response. On Sept. 13, the agency’s executive director, Patrick Foye, an appointee of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, ordered the lanes reopened. Baroni approved a media statement saying the closures were part of a traffic study.
On Sept. 18, Wildstein sent an article on the jams to Bill Stepien, Christie’s campaign manager. “The mayor is an idiot,” Stepien wrote. “It will be a tough November for this little Serbian,” Wildstein wrote. Sokolich is of Croatian descent.
When the documents surfaced, Christie fired Kelly and cast aside Stepien, saying in a Jan. 9 press conference he was embarrassed and knew nothing of the tie-ups at the time. Wildstein and Baroni had already resigned.
At the press conference, Christie said he had no recollection of anyone in his campaign asking him to meet Sokolich or call him.
“Until I saw his picture last night on television, I wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of a lineup,” Christie said. “The reason that the retribution idea never came into my head is because I never even knew that we were pursuing his endorsement.”
The same day, Wildstein, subpoenaed by a state Assembly committee, invoked his constitutional Fifth Amendment right to silence.
After the conference, Christie trekked to Borough Hall to apologize to Sokolich. They sat in the office of Sokolich, a real-estate lawyer elected mayor in 2007. A father of two, his walls are full of plaques, proclamations, and baseballs thrown out on Little League opening days. Two photos and a painting of the George Washington Bridge, the world’s busiest span, dominate the room.
Fort Lee’s police chief, attorney, and administrator were at the meeting. Sokolich’s wife, Denise, was there. Christie, who said in his press conference he was not a bully, was humble.
“He was very conciliatory and apologetic,” Sokolich said. “I take him at his word. I’m also not rooting for him to know anything. I’m not rooting for him to have any involvement in this.”
Kevin Roberts, a Christie spokesman, said the Drumthwacket lunch that Sokolich recalled took place on April 15, 2010, and involved other mayors. Roberts didn’t know their identities.
“It’s not unusual and has been a pretty regular occurrence over the governor’s time in office for him to host local elected officials at Drumthwacket,” Roberts said.
Sokolich has always lived in Fort Lee, a town of 37,500, except when he studied at Rutgers University and Seton Hall Law School, both in New Jersey. After a second snowstorm this week, he paced his office, wearing blue jeans, a gray sweatshirt, and a Rutgers baseball cap. He spoke in a rapid, steady voice, interrupting the interview to take calls about snow plowing.
Until the media siege that followed the traffic jams, Sokolich’s public life was dominated by shepherding a $1 billion redevelopment project on a 16-acre site just blocks from the bridge. After four decades of failed efforts, Sokolich managed to build public consensus behind a pair of developments now being examined by a state legislative committee as a possible genesis to the bridge scandal.
One project, known as The Modern, involves two 47-story glass towers, each with 450 luxury rental apartments. The developer is Fort Lee Redevelopment Associates LLC, a partnership of SJP Residential Properties; attorney James Demetrakis; and real-estate investment firm Palisades Financial.
The other project, known as Hudson Lights, is a mixed-use Development offering 1 million square feet of retail space along with luxury apartments. The developers are Tucker Development Corp., Ares Management and Kushner Real Estate Group. New Jersey’s pension funds are an investor in Tucker’s part of the project, state records show.
The developers of The Modern and Hudson Lights also have agreed to an “adaptive” traffic signalization system at 14 intersections that will use sensors and computers to keep cars moving, Sokolich said. Christie’s transportation department agreed two weeks ago to participate, Sokolich said.
A decade ago, the Port Authority, which runs bridges, tunnels and airports in the region, as well as the World Trade Center, committed half of the $30 million needed to improve roads and intersections around the site, known as Redevelopment 5.
Baroni was Sokolich’s contact at the Port Authority. In November 2010, Sokolich wrote to him to complain of “extraordinary traffic burdens” caused by the bridge, citing 20 times in 40 days when Fort Lee was “completely gridlocked.”
The traffic would be eased, the mayor wrote, if the Port Authority provided more officers at intersections during traffic jams. Fort Lee traffic also rose when the agency reduced toll booth workers on weekends, he wrote. In response, the agency made only limited changes to its police staffing, Sokolich said.
As Sokolich labored on the redevelopment, which involves no public money and no tax breaks, he met occasionally with a Christie aide, Matt Mowers. Now the state GOP executive director in New Hampshire, Mowers would talk politics, Sokolich said.
“I was never asked directly to endorse” Christie, Sokolich said. “It was always conversations, like ‘Hey, this mayor endorsed Governor Christie, and this mayor jumped over and endorsed Governor Christie, this county executive who’s a Democrat endorsed Governor Christie.”
“That would ultimately lead to a conversation like, ‘Is that something, you, mayor, would consider?’ or ‘What’s on your mind? Is that something you might want to do?,’” he said. “I never viewed it as a direct request. I always viewed it as an attempt to maintain plausible deniability in case I said no. I never specifically said no, because, you know, I didn’t want to disappoint the guy that was asking the question.”
Sokolich said he told Mowers he didn’t want anything from Christie.
“I would tell him hopefully the governor would come up for the groundbreakings” on the redevelopment, Sokolich said. “He never came up. That’s alright, he’s a busy guy. I guess there’s other $1 billion developments going on that he could go to.”
Christie spokesman Roberts said yesterday in a four-page e-mail: “The mayor’s comments today are a total departure and direct contradiction of the version of events he has told up to today.”
The e-mail listed instances when Sokolich said he was never asked for an endorsement, and that Christie “has made clear that Sokolich’s endorsement was not on his radar screen.”
The mayor downplayed suggestions by lawmakers that the tie-ups were motivated by the redevelopment, which he called “the heart of Fort Lee’s renaissance.” He said he doesn’t see “facts and circumstances that jump out at me that say this is the reason.”
His failure to endorse Christie “is more of a feasible explanation than Redevelopment 5 at this point. But it’s an ever-changing phenomenon here.”
After the week of traffic jams and unreturned calls, Baroni called Sokolich the next week to set up a meeting. Sokolich agreed at first, then canceled.
“He was a friend,” Sokolich said. “I thought I knew him well. I’m immensely disappointed and betrayed.”
Still, he said, he thought Baroni was “a decent guy. I still do. I truly wish the best for him.”
He is less charitable with Wildstein, who was at the Port Authority offices in Fort Lee when the traffic jams began.
“You don’t sit in some backroom, smoke a cigar, put your feet up on the desk and say, ‘Hey, let’s rattle the cages of these people’s lives,’” Sokolich said. “You just don’t do that in today’s day and age. If it were my mother who was clutching her chest in the living room, and I was waiting for an ambulance that usually takes three to four minutes and it was taking 10 to 11, that’s why he deserves an ass kicking.”
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