Top Christie Authority Official Quits Amid Bridge Probe
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said his top executive appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey resigned as lawmakers questioned the closing of lanes onto the George Washington Bridge three months ago.
Christie, a 51-year-old Republican, said he had planned to replace Bill Baroni even before Democrats started asking about the order that lanes be closed. The unannounced action turned typical half-hour delays into four hours. The governor told reporters today that the closures were a “mistake,” and said Baroni’s departure was “the appropriate thing to do given all the distractions that have been going on.”
The bistate Port Authority, which operates what it says is the world’s busiest span, says the morning rush-hour lane closings were for a traffic study. The governor’s Democratic opponents in New Jersey as well as in Washington are trying to build a case that his allies orchestrated the lane closings as a show of might after a Democratic mayor didn't endorse the possible 2016 presidential contender.
“This is part of putting yourself out there to run for president in the 21st century,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville.
The Democratic National Committee has jumped on the bridge issue, saying earlier this week in a statement that the governor owes New Jerseyans answers. Christie said he expects to remain a source of criticism for the opposing party.
“National Democrats are going to make an issue about everything with me -- get used to it,” he told reporters in Trenton.
Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, a New Jersey town abutting the bridge, protested the closings in a Sept. 12 letter to Baroni, a former Republican state senator. The mayor wasn’t among Democrats who broke party lines to endorse Christie for his Nov. 5 re-election bid.
The letter, obtained under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, is marked “personal” and asks Baroni to reverse the action “quietly, uneventfully and without political fanfare.” Baroni didn’t respond to a call or text to his mobile phone.
“We are reaching the conclusion that there are punitive overtones associated with this initiative,” Sokolich wrote. “What other conclusion could we possibly reach?”
Christie said he had nothing to do with the orders. Baroni, named to the post by Christie in 2010, will be replaced by Deborah Gramiccioni, his deputy chief of staff for policy. David Wildstein, the Port Authority appointee who ordered the closures and is a former high school friend of Christie’s, is no longer at the agency, the governor told reporters today.
The governor said a Wall Street Journal report that he called New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to complain that Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye, a Cuomo appointee, was asking too many questions is “categorically wrong.”
The transportation committee of the Democratic-controlled New Jersey Assembly, which held hearings on the lane closures, yesterday subpoenaed seven more individuals to answer questions.
The closures set off such rancor because “this was no ordinary traffic jam,” said Wendy Pollack, a spokeswoman for the Regional Plan Association, a New York-based group that studies transportation and development issues in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
“People understand that work hours are crowded,” Pollack said by telephone. “They don’t understand that public roadways can be blocked for no reason. There might have been an extraordinary abuse of power.”
On Dec. 2, Christie joked with reporters in Trenton that he personally manipulated the bridge’s flow with traffic cones. Then he attacked two Democratic lawmakers -- Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg from Teaneck, who represents Fort Lee, and Assemblyman John Wisniewski from Sayreville, chairman of the transportation committee -- as “obsessed with” the jams.
Weinberg, interviewed yesterday, said she didn’t believe Christie personally ordered the jam.
“I initially described this as a couple of frat boys sitting in their office, having a couple of beers and saying, ’I have an idea!’” Weinberg said. She denied that she was fixated on the matter, saying it was among a number of issues she is working on, including marriage equality and open government.
Wisniewski didn’t return a request for comment placed through a spokesman, Tom Hester Jr. Sokolich, the mayor, didn’t return a phone call to his municipal office for comment, and a phone message left with the Port Authority’s media office drew no response.
Christie in 2010 drew criticism over the project known as Access to the Region’s Core, a rail tunnel beneath the Hudson River that the Federal Transportation Administration estimated would cost $12.4 billion. The governor canceled construction, saying that New Jersey would be exposed to cost overruns -- a decision criticized by U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat who died this year, as “one of the biggest public-policy blunders in New Jersey history.”
“The ARC tunnel was Christie’s judgment call and he was within his purview of his responsibility,” said Brigid Harrison, a politics professor at Montclair State University. “That’s different from somebody randomly exercising authority, an abuse of authority, and people take exception to that.”
Christie said the bridge-traffic story was the sort to “become sensationalized.”
“The easiest thing to say is, ’They’re out of control,’” said Christie, referring to the Port Authority. “I don’t sense that they’re out of control. Does that mean they are mistake-free? No. This is a huge governmental entity with a budget bigger than some state budgets. There are going to be mistakes made.”
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