Bridgegate Papers Show Official Conflict and Anger
Confusion, distrust, anger and apparent stonewalling marked internal communications between New Jersey Port Authority officials, their New York counterparts and PA and Fort Lee police as surprise lane closings disrupted traffic at the George Washington Bridge Sept. 9 through Sept. 13 of last year.
The messages are among several thousand pages of documents made available digitally late Friday by the legislative committee investigating the incident now known as "Bridgegate." However, the newly-released documents do not appear to resolve key questions being explored by legislative investigations and an inquiry by the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. If anything, they may be raising new questions.
For example, John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, said Friday that the documents include "a reference to what appears to be a meeting between Port Authority Chairman David Samson and Gov. Chris Christie one week before Bridget Anne Kelly sent a now-infamous email signalling that ‘traffic problems’ should commence in Fort Lee."
Kelly's email went to Port Authority official David Wildstein, a close Christie associate, who then officially ordered the lane closings. Kelly was fired by Christie Thursday; Wildstein resigned Dec. 13.
The Assembly's incoming Speaker, Vincent Prieto, said Saturday that he will convene a special session Thursday to vote on extending the Transportation Committee's investigation. Wisniewski, in an interview with NBC News Saturday, raised the possibility of impeachment proceedings against the governor if it turned out he was aware aides were illegally interfering with bridge operations in a "political vendetta."
In a lengthy news conference Thursday, Gov. Christie, disclaimed any prior personal knowledge of the bridge closing plans, called Kelly's actions "unacceptable" and announced her firing as his deputy chief of staff "because she lied" and withheld what she knew about the matter.
Wisniewski, referring to the massive document release Friday, noted that Wildstein had invoked his constitutional right to silence before the committee the day before. But he added, "By submitting these documents, Mr. Wildstein is telling us they are related to the lane closures in some way," he said. "The question that demands answering is how?"
An immediate answer to that question does not leap out of the reams of documents released Friday. But the materials do open a curtain on the backstage drama that unfolded at the George Washington Bridge and the streets of Fort Lee between Sept. 9 and 13.
Three themes emerge:
- The "traffic study" explanation for the lane closings, which critics have since derided as a cover story for an act of political retribution, was already being met on the scene with extreme skepticism and anger by Fort Lee police and the New York-appointed executive director of the Port Authority, Patrick Foye. The released documents include text and graphics referring to a study but no findings.
- Port Authority police officials are shown as receiving very short notice of the impending lane closing plan and attempting, without success, to warn bridge management and New Jersey-appointed PA officials that it would cause major traffic disruptions.
- Messages passed among key New Jersey Port Authority officials and some of Gov. Christie's closest aides, show a determination to rebuff urgent pleas from Fort Lee officials and Foye for a more information and an immediate reopening of the lanes. Instructions to ignore such inquiries, as well as calls from the media, are evident.
A Sept. 6 email from Port Authority Police official Darcy Licorish alerts departmental "chiefs" that a PA manager had been instructed by Wildstein to limit local traffic from two heavily-used streets in Fort Lee to one bridge approach lane, closing three others, something the email notes "could impact the volume of traffic." Darcy's email closes: "I was informed that Mr. Wildstein is scheduled to visit the facility on the initiating date 9/10/13."
"Fort Lee is not happy. . . "
When a department official named Thomas Michaels emails Licorish Sunday, Sept. 8, asking "Will this affect our normal rush hour operation?" Licorish responds: "Most likely. Concerns were made to no aval [avail] locally."
The following day, Monday, Sept. 9, Robert Durando, general manager of the bridge, emails superiors, "Fort Lee is not happy" and describes "an unpleasant interaction with the Fort Lee Police Chief." Durando emails that the Fort Lee police chief and an assistant have told him the lane closures and resulting congestion are "preventing the smooth flow of emergency response vehicles throughout the Borough."
Durando's email also indicates that the Fort Lee police officials had by that time been told the lane closings were part of a traffic study. However, Durando writes that the explanation is not going over well with local police on the scene Sept. 9. "Their characterization was that 'the test' is a monumental failure," Durando writes. "Fort Lee is not happy."
"Just got off the phone with the FLPD Chief who's not happy about our new traffic pattern," Durando emails Wildstein on Sept. 9. "He's particularly upset that no one from the GWB, either civilian or PAPD had the courtesy of the 'neighborly' intent to call either the Mayor's Office or the FLPD about testing a new traffic pattern."
Durando's emails also portray Fort Lee police as struggling to improvise ways of easing the traffic jams, which only seemed to get worse. "Our PD spent an extended period working the intersections and implemented diversions that further congested the borough," he writes.
"I will get to the bottom of this. . ."
The sharpest complaints about the cloak of silence accompanying the lane closings comes in an angry Sept. 13 email from Foye to Bill Baroni, then the deputy executive director of the Port Authority and a Christie appointee.
In addition to demanding the reopening of the closed lanes, Foye warns Baroni and other officials copied on the email: "I will get to the bottom of this abusive decision which violates everything this agency stands for; I intend to learn how PA process was wrongfully subverted and the public interest damaged to say nothing of the credibility of this agency."
A series of September 17-18 email exchanges show Samson and other New Jersey officials mocking Foye's entreaties, with Samson angrily suggesting that Foye, appointed to the Port Authority by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, had leaked his concerns to the Wall Street Journal, "stirring up trouble." Samson adds: "very unfortunate for NY/NJ relations."
However, Baroni, who also resigned from the Port Authority Dec. 13, is said in another email to have dismissed Samson's accusation, which was also drawing denials from other New York PA officials. Another email suggests Wall Street Journal coverage of the lane closing controversy was triggered in part because several of the newspaper's editors had been caught in the resulting traffic jams.
Foye's Sept. 13 email appears to undermine the "traffic study" explanation for the lane closings, complaining that the implementation is devoid of the normal consultations, notifications and precautions that would precede and accompany such a radical change in traffic flow at the George Washington Bridge. He writes: "I am appalled by the lack of process, failure to inform our customers and Fort Lee and most of all by the dangers created to the public interest. . .This hasty and ill-advised decision has resulted in delays to emergency vehicles. I pray that no life has been lost or trip of hospital- or hospice-bound patient delayed."
Twenty minutes later, at 8:04 a.m., Baroni emails a brief reply to Foye: "We have restored the 3 toll lanes to Ft. Lee."
On Oct. 2, Wildstein emails Christie's re-election campaign manager Bill Stepien, saying, "we need to address leaks by Foye and his messing with us 5 weeks before election."
The newly-released documents also include many messages and memos from spokespersons for the Port Authority to Baroni and other superiors, informing them of mounting inquiries from multiple media outlets in New Jersey and New York about the lane closings in the days and weeks following it.
On Oct. 7, Steve Coleman of the media relations office emails the following message to Foye and Baroni: "I have received calls this afternoon from NY1, WCBS Radio and the Bergen Record seeking PA comment on Senator [Loretta] Weinberg's remarks and the GWB toll lane issue. I am not responding to an of the inquiries unless instructed otherwise."
Baroni emails back: "Agree. No response."
A second email from Coleman that day reads: "Additional calls from the Star Ledger and Associated Press. I will not respond to either call."
The pattern is repeated in message after message from Coleman to Baroni through October and November, with Coleman reporting on the latest media inquiry and Baroni replying, "No response."
Links to the newly-released documents have been posted on the state legislature's website, where they are accessible to the general public as well as the media. The contents are already receiving intense beyond the Assembly Transportation Committee, in light of the firestorm set off by Wednesday's release of Kelly's email to Wildstein.
Kelly wrote: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
Wildstein replied: "Got it."
Dan Alexander also contributed to this report.
Here is the full text of Wisniewski's statement on Friday:
“As with so much else we’ve discovered during this investigation, these documents raise many more questions. It’s obvious that senior members of the governor’s staff were involved in spin control once this story broke.
“Given everything we’ve seen and heard, there are two glaring questions that exist right now.
“How much of the full picture was the governor’s senior staff given regarding the development of this lane closure project? With the tight control this administration maintains, it doesn’t stretch the imagination that they were given more information than they let on. When they were preparing spin control, how could they not have been given the whole story?
“Secondly, the documents submitted by David Wildstein and his attorney are documents they deemed specifically related to the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge as per our subpoena request. Included in these documents is a reference to what appears to be a meeting between Port Authority Chairman David Samson and the governor one week before Bridget Kelly issued the order to cause ‘traffic problems’ in Fort Lee. By submitting these documents, Mr. Wildstein is telling us they are related to the lane closures in some way. The question that demands answering is how?
“These are just two of the many answers we will be seeking in the days and weeks ahead.”