The mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, said he takes Governor Chris Christie “at his word” that he didn’t know about intentional traffic jams in his town near the George Washington Bridge even as a former Christie ally claims the governor did.
Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, said he is skeptical about a Jan. 31 letter by an attorney for David Wildstein saying “evidence exists” that Christie, a Republican, knew about the shutdown of access lanes to the bridge as it occurred from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12. Sokolich said the closures were probably retaliation for him not supporting Christie’s re-election.
Christie, 51, denied any role in lane shutdowns ordered by Wildstein, once his appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge. In a Feb. 1 e-mail to supporters, Christie questioned Wildstein’s credibility. State lawmakers and U.S. prosecutors are probing the scandal, which has thrown into doubt Christie’s possible run for president. The decision to close lanes lengthened the typical 30-minute commute across the Hudson River to New York to as long as four hours.
“I’m the guy giving the governor the benefit of the doubt, and I take him at his word,” Sokolich said yesterday in a phone interview. “I’ve said it 100 times, I’m not rooting for the highest elected official in the state of New Jersey to be involved in this. I’m not. But I don’t know, it seems like all sorts of things are happening.”
The letter by Wildstein’s attorney, Alan Zegas, to the Port Authority said “evidence exists” tying Christie to “having knowledge” of the traffic tie-ups when the lanes were closed. At a Jan. 9 press conference, Christie said he learned of the closures after they took place and felt betrayed by his staff. Christie went that day to Fort Lee to apologize to Sokolich.
“I’m not a Wildstein fan, I’ve made no secret of that,” Sokolich said. “Anything that emanates from his camp has to be taken with a grain of salt.”
The traffic jams began on a Monday morning, when two of three local access lanes were closed, and continued each morning. Sokolich made repeated calls to the Port Authority to learn what was happening and got no response.
On that Friday, Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, who was appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, ordered all lanes reopened. Wildstein is the former director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority.
Sokolich said that “based on what we know now,” the shutdowns were probably a result of his failure to cross party lines and endorse Christie last November. He said any evidence that Wildstein has about Christie’s possible role must be analyzed carefully.
“If it was his knowledge that, hey, we’re going after the mayor of Fort Lee for failing to endorse, if that knowledge was that Monday and then it was allowed to continue for the next four days, well you know what, that’s a problem,” he said. “Your solemn oath would have dictated that you immediately have whoever is responsible cease and desist.”
Sokolich said he first heard the tie-ups might have been directed at him on Sept. 9 at 6:30 a.m., when the police chief said, “‘Mayor, I’m hearing this is about you.’ I’m the one who kept saying, ‘No, it can’t be, it can’t be, I’m not important enough.’ I don’t think it’s about Mark Sokolich, per se, although the e-mails would tell you differently.”
E-mails released last month show that on Aug. 13, Christie’s deputy chief of staff at the time, Bridget Anne Kelly, wrote to Wildstein: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein replied: “Got it.”
On Sept. 18, Wildstein e-mailed a news article about the jams to Bill Stepien, then Christie’s campaign manager.
Stepien replied: “The mayor is an idiot.” Wildstein, referring to Sokolich, wrote: “It will be a tough November for this little Serbian.” Sokolich is of Croatian descent.
On Jan. 9, Christie said he had fired Kelly and jettisoned Stepien.
Sokolich said he “absolutely” believes Wildstein is seeking immunity from prosecution. When he appeared to testify before the Assembly transportation committee on Jan. 9, Wildstein asserted his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
Zegas said that day that his client would disclose what he knew if he got immunity. Zegas didn’t respond to a call yesterday seeking comment on the matter.
Sokolich said he hasn’t been asked by anyone in the office of U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman in Newark, New Jersey, to discuss the matter.
“I’m going to cooperate any way I can,” he said.
Twenty people and groups subpoenaed by New Jersey lawmakers investigating the traffic jams faced a deadline yesterday to deliver documents, although most asked for more time.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who is co-chairman of a panel probing the tie-ups, said he will start receiving documents for yesterday’s deadline and expects submissions to continue on a “rolling basis” for several days. In almost all cases, respondents will provide the information electronically, he said in an interview.
The subpoenas sought all communications, including text messages, notes and documents regarding the lane closings from Sept. 1 to the present, along with video and audio recordings and voice mails. They demand calendars and day planners, as well as smartphones, mobile phones, tablets and other similar devices used, whether business or personal.
The state and U.S. investigations won’t affect each other, Wisniewski said. He said the committee wants to know what happened and why, and then will craft laws to prevent it from taking place again. Fishman is conducting a criminal probe, he said.
Fishman has declined to comment about the investigation by his office.
Wisniewski said the Legislature’s investigation will go “wherever the documents take us.”