Jan. 8 (Bloomberg) -- A top Chris Christie aide told a Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive that it was “time for some traffic problems” a few weeks before surprise lane closings on the George Washington Bridge backed up miles of road in a town whose mayor didn’t endorse the governor.
Bridget Anne Kelly, deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, sent the message to David Wildstein, a Christie authority appointee, on Aug. 13, according to e-mails obtained today. Wildstein, who ordered the four-day closings, replied: “Got it.”
Christie, 51, a Republican who may run for president in 2016, has said he had nothing to do with the tie-ups in September that froze traffic in Fort Lee, the New Jersey town that abuts the bridge to Manhattan. The governor has tried to portray himself as above the politics that have led to corruption in New Jersey and gridlock in Washington. Today’s revelation links his office directly to the act of retribution.
“They were playing hardball politics and doing it with something that affected the lives of the average resident just trying to commute,”said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “It furthers the accusation that Christie and the people who surround him are very tough political people.”
The governor, who has said the closings were for a traffic study, canceled an appearance today in Ocean County after the messages were revealed. Michael Drewniak and Colin Reed, spokesmen for Christie, didn’t respond to phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Christie’s opponents have said the closings were orchestrated to punish a Democratic mayor who didn’t break party lines to support the governor, who went on to defeat Democrat Barbara Buono by a 23 percentage-point margin in the Nov. 5 election.
At 8:04 a.m. on Sept. 10, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich sent a text to Bill Baroni, Christie’s top executive appointee at the authority, saying the borough had “four very busy traffic lanes merging into only one toll booth,” on what the authority says is the world’s busiest bridge.
His text became part of a string discussing the closings. The record doesn’t include the identities of participants other than Sokolich.
“The bigger problem is getting kids to school,” Sokolich wrote. “Help, please. It’s maddening.”
The text string includes a response: “They are the children of Buono voters.”
Baroni, a former state senator, resigned Dec. 13. Wildstein, a high-school friend of Christie’s, has also quit.
The e-mails link David Samson, Christie’s appointed Port Authority chairman, to the affair. In one message, Wildstein told Kelly that Samson was “helping us to retaliate” for New York traffic officials’ easing of the jam on what would have been the fifth day.
Several times, aides refer to Sokolich as “the Serbian,” and to Fort Lee as “Serbia.” Sokolich didn’t answer a telephone message seeking his views on today’s disclosure.
Bill Stepien, who managed Christie’s 2009 campaign and was named chairman of the state Republican Party this week, wrote on Sept. 18 to Wildstein: “The mayor is an idiot.” In another e-mail on Oct. 2, Wildstein wrote to Stepien: “We need to address leaks from Foye and his messing with us five weeks before election.”
The reference was to Patrick Foye, the Port Authority executive director appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. Christie has denied a Wall Street Journal report that he called Cuomo to complain that Foye was asking too many questions about the lane closings.
The involvement of Christie’s senior staff “raises it to an entirely different level,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University polling center in West Long Branch.
“The impression of Chris Christie’s administration is that absolutely nothing happens -- down to the purchase of paper clips -- without the governor being informed,” Murray said. “Nobody makes a move or talks to the press without the governor knowing about it. So it makes it hard for the governor to distance himself from this action.”
National Democrats took note:
“These revelations are troubling for any public official, but they also indicate what we’ve come to expect from Governor Christie,” Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the party’s national committee, said in a statement. “When people oppose him, he exacts retribution. When people question him, he belittles and snidely jokes. And when anyone dares to look into his administration, he bullies and attacks.”
The transportation committee of the Democrat-controlled New Jersey Assembly has held hearings on the matter and subpoenaed people to answer questions. Wildstein is scheduled to testify under oath before the panel tomorrow.
Senator Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat from Elizabeth, posted a Twitter message calling for a federal grand jury investigation. “This smells of corrupt use of government authority at the highest levels,” Lesniak wrote.
Phone calls and e-mails on the closings to Lisa MacSpadden, Steve Coleman and Ron Marsico in the Port Authority press office weren’t immediately returned.
Baroni didn’t respond to a phone call. Kelly, who lives in Ramsey, didn’t respond to an e-mail for comment. Stepien didn’t respond to an e-mail for comment.
Christie must answer for the closures, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Teaneck Democrat who represents Fort Lee, said today in an interview.
“Either he was directly involved or he has supervised people who think these kinds of actions are appropriate,” Weinberg said.
Christie’s leadership after Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, devastating New Jersey shore towns, earned him record public-approval ratings. The bridge affair shows that his strength as “a tough, aggressive, does-what-he wants kind of politician” also may be his biggest vulnerability, Zelizer said.
“Underneath that is another story about a guy who will go too far and seek retribution against those who don’t support him,” Zelizer said. “His opponents now see how you can turn his story against him.”
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