Legitimacy of Bridgegate ‘Traffic Study’ Undone
Claims that a traffic study was the true purpose of last September's chaotic lane closings at the George Washington Bridge have drawn skepticism for months. The Christie administration's internal report on Bridgegate leaves them in shreds.
In his Friday news conference at the Statehouse, Gov. Chris Christie said the authenticity of traffic research as the real goal of the lane closings, rather than a way to accomplish them, had essentially been "blown away" by the report.
The report, prepared by a law firm hired by Christie's office, concludes the traffic study explanation is rendered "almost beside the point" because of the actual disruption at the core of the controversy. It states: "even a 'legitimate' traffic study done for ulterior motives and intended to inflict damage on blameless commuters would unquestionably constitute an abuse of public trust, in violation of, among other things, the Office of the Governor and Port Authority policies."
The firm's investigators were unable to determine whether the lane closings were aimed at punishing Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Gov. Chris Christie for re-election, the report states, but adds: "there are other credible theories that this could have been motivated, in part, by other personal or political animus, unrelated to the Governor or his re-election."
Fort Lee, however, was the apparent target of the scheme, Lead attorney Randy Mastro said on ABC's This Week Sunday.
"In the end, I don't know if we'll ever know what the motive was," Christie said Friday. "As I said on Jan. 8, it mystifies me on every level, why this was done."
The report clearly assigns authorship of the traffic study rationale, along with much of the blame for the entire lane-closing fiasco, to David Wildstein, the Christie appointee who resigned his Port Authority position in December, as the controversy intensified. It also blames another Christie PA appointee, executive director Bill Baroni, for promoting the traffic study argument to "others in the governor's office" as well as in extensive testimony to an Assembly Committee investigating the lane closings last November.
"Wildstein helped prepare Baroni for his testimony," the report states. "Baroni told the Committee this was a legitimate traffic study long under consideration and long overdue because Fort Lee had received favored treatment in the past.
At one point, the report makes Wildstein's efforts to document the traffic study explanation seem almost theatrical. The Port Authority official had dinner with Christie press secretary Michael Drewniak Dec. 4, the report states, "and reiterated that the lane realignment was his idea and a legitimate traffic study. . . toward the end of the dinner, Wildstein took out a packet of papers, said that these papers were the 'traffic study,' and described them.
As the report also notes, Baroni's New York counterpart on the Port Authority, Patrick Foye, told the Assembly committee in November "he was not aware of any actual traffic study." Foye was already on the record insisting that none of the normal procedures and notifications that would have accompanied an authorized study by the PA had preceded the September lane closings.
But the report also appears to use Foye's objections to the traffic disruption as an argument for its recommendation that a bi-state commission consider uncoupling the joint New Jersey-New York administration of the Port Authority, casting it as an example of "divisions" and "dysfunction." The recommendation was embraced by Gov. Christie at his Friday press conference, in which he also referred to Foye as the source of a leak leading to critical Wall Street Journal report that intensified the Bridgegate controversy. Foye has denied responsibility for any such leak.
The Foye-as-leaker accusation surfaced in a series of emails subpoenaed by the joint legislative committee probing Bridgegate, emails exchanged by several key New Jersey PA figures, including the authority's chairman David Samson, whose resignation was announced by Christie Friday.
The September 17-18 email exchanges show the New Jersey officials mocking Foye's objections to the lane closings, 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."
Christie said Friday he was satisfied Samson was blameless in Bridgegate and praised his tenure. He had no such praise for Wildstein or Baroni --on whose recommendation he said he appointed Wildstein. “I obviously believe that having David Wildstein at the Port Authority was a mistake,” the governor said. “Let’s just leave it at that.”
Both Wildstein and Baroni resigned Dec. 13, with Baroni sticking by the traffic study explanation but saying he shared blame for not adequately communicating plans for it. According to the internal report, announcement of the two resignations was preceded by a Dec. 13 meeting "special meeting" of Christie with his senior staff, in which he brought up the lane closing controversy, using "words to the effect of: 'This is a mess and now I have to clean it up.'"
Ten days later, Christie was asked about the traffic study claim during an appearance on Townsquare Media's "Ask the Governor" program with Eric Scott.
Had Christie actually seen the traffic study cited by Wildstein and Baroni?
"No," the governor said, adding, "What do I care?"
Here is audio of the full exchange:
The governor added he had no reason to disbelieve Baroni's testimony to the Assembly committee. His disinterest in authenticating the traffic study, Christie said, was based on his belief it would do little to quiet Bridgegate critics-- "because they'd find something else."