The New Jersey legislature stunned the media world with an extensive, thousand-page document drop providing more evidence that Gov. Chris Christie’s staff closed down part of the George Washington Bridge for political retribution – and even blamed the Mayor of Fort Lee for their mischief.
The majority of the thousand-document set of exhibits – available on the New Jersey state website and related to the testimony of David Wildstein, Director of Interstate Capital Projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – tells us little we did not already know, though from the new perspective of the private lens of the Port Authority’s spokespeople and leadership.
Many of the emails in the accounts are round-ups of media reports on the bridge closing and FOIA requests by Ted Mann, the Wall Street Journal‘s reporter covering the story. The documentation behind State Senators Raymond Lesniak’s and Loretta Weinberg’s attempts to investigate the closings are also included.
There are notable moments in the documents aside from the clear exchanges that feed the intrigue behind the debacle. For one, Deputy Director of Media Relations Steve Coleman makes the most appearances in the first set of documents (“Exhibit A”), simply refusing to answer any queries from the media or being denied authority to respond to them. From the beginning, it is increasingly clear that the Port Authority has no interest in discussing the matter. Wildstein responds affirmatively to one email asking if the official plan was “just to hunker down and grit our way through it.”
It is, however, the relationship between the Port Authority – specifically, Wildstein and those in the know about the study – and the authorities in Fort Lee that merits a closer look.
It did not take more than a few hours for Wildstein – who was on the ground in Fort Lee the first day of the study, a rarity for someone in his position – and his associates to hear complaints from Fort Lee authorities about the closures. Within hours, they knew that the potential for emergency response vehicles to be hindered and civilians to be hurt by the jam was abundantly clear.
By 9 a.m. of the first day of lane closures, General Manager of the George Washington Bridge Robert Durando was alerting the Port Authority that Fort Lee police were “particularly upset that no one from the GWB, either civilian or PAPD had the courtesy or the ‘neighborly’ intent to call either the Mayor’s Office or FLPD about testing a new traffic pattern.” He adds that the police chief “asked how he goes about ending this ‘miserable failure.'”
By noon that day, Durando reported that the “traffic study” was “preventing the smooth flow of emergency response vehicles throughout the Borough.” Fort Lee authorities had told him that the study was a “monumental failure” and demanded it end.
The official statement from Port Authority after the incident concluded claims that those running the study were “alert for any emergency vehicles in the area.”
By September 13, Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye stepped in and halted the study, calling the procedure that shut down the lanes “very troubling” and stating that he was “appalled” by the matter. There are a number of intriguing bits of correspondence between Foye and other officials (Foye was kept out of the loop of the study as well), and Wildstein at one point laments, “we need to address leaks from Foye and his messing with us 5 weeks before election.”
However, regarding the emails that conclusively prove that the Port Authority officials involved in closing the bridge knew that emergency response vehicles were hindered, yet another correspondence stands out in highlighting their dishonesty.
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich was pleading with the Port Authority the entire time to stop the study, which he noted seemed to have little objective but to be troublesome, and that he himself began to believe was something like retribution. If it was, in Sokolich’s words, Port Authority planned to “add insult to injury.”
“Many members of the public have indicated to me that the Port Authority Police Officers are advising commuters in response to their complaints that this recent traffic debacle is the result of a decision that I, as the Mayor, recently made,” Sokolich writes in a letter to Bill Baroni, Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority.
The thousands of pages of documents will continue to be a goldmine of illicit behavior and contradictions between public and private as journalists continue to dig through the mire (releasing them on Friday guarantees a weekend full of reading for those covering the story).
If the case is that the Port Authority was trying to punish Mark Sokolich for something (and not, as one alternative theory goes, State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg), telling commuters that Sokolich was behind closing the lanes would be clear evidence. Ignoring the distress signals that Fort Lee residents might be in danger because of slower emergency response times also feeds deeply into this theory. And after yesterday’s theatrical mea culpa from Governor Christie, all it would take is one inconsistency that proves he knew about this behavior to sink his political ship for good.