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Emails Paint Traffic Jam as Revenge

Friday, January 10, 2014

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Are deliberate traffic jams on busy public bridges the newest political dirty trick?

That's the email-fueled accusation that kept New Jersey's popular governor on the hot seat for two hours Thursday (Jan. 9), answering questions about the alleged plot.

Gov. Chris Christie, widely regarded as a 2016 presidential hopeful, maintained his innocence in the events but apologized for them anyway during a two-hour-long press conference.

Leaked Documents

Emails and texts leaked Wednesday (Jan. 8) revealed that a senior Christie staff member ordered local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge closed for several days last year—allegedly to punish Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, NJ, for refusing to support Christie's re-election bid.

The bridge connects Manhattan and Fort Lee. The lanes were closed from Sept. 9 to 13 for what was then believed to be a traffic study.

The closures forced traffic backups that stretched into neighboring towns, caused delays in ambulance and rescue services, and gridlocked buses full of children trying to get to school.

Chris Christie press conference
Governor's Office / Tim Larsen

Gov. Chris Christie spoke to reporters for nearly two hours Thursday (Jan. 9). Leaked emails suggested that a senior staff member and Port Authority executives plotted a major traffic jam as revenge against a Democratic mayor who did not support Christie.

Christie said this week that the evidence of his staff's wrongdoing had left him "stunned," "humiliated," "sad," and "heartbroken."

Resignations, Firings

The emails and texts were sent between private accounts of Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's deputy chief of staff, and David Wildstein, director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Wildstein is also a childhood friend of Christie.

The documents also revealed correspondence between Wildstein and Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority.

Christie has adamantly denied any prior knowledge about the information in the emails, repeatedly stating that he first heard about it “when I was done with my workout yesterday morning and got a call from my communications director.”

Baroni and Wildstein both resigned from their positions on Dec. 13.

While Christie was apologizing Thursday, Wildstein was invoking his Fifth Amendment rights, declining to answer questions from a state Assembly committee investigating his role in the incident.

At the press conference, Christie said he terminated Kelly “immediately this morning … because she lied to me.”

Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich
FortLeeNJ.org

Christie says Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich (pictured) was never on his "radar."

Christie also said he had lost confidence in campaign manager Bill Stepien’s judgment. He said he had asked Stepien to withdraw from next week’s election for chairman of the New Jersey Republican Party and from his consultancy role with the Republican Governors Association, which Christie chairs.

“All I can do is apologize for the conduct of my staff; I can’t turn back time," Christie said.

“In the end, I have 65,000 people working for me every day, and I cannot know what each of them is doing at every minute.”

'Obviously a Lie'

In September, officials said the bridge access lanes were closed for a traffic study.

When allegations surfaced last year that the traffic jam was some type of political payback, Christie reacted by saying, "I was actually the guy working the cones out there. You really are not serious."

Christie said he brought his senior staff together last month and gave them one hour to divulge any information they had about the lane closures. When no one came forward, Christie said he was assured he could tell the media that no one on his staff was involved in the matter.

Now, Christie says, that was "obviously a lie."

"I would never have come out here four or five weeks ago and made a joke about these lane closures if I ever had an inkling that anyone on my staff would have been so stupid to be involved, and then so deceitful as to not disclose that information ... when asked by a superior," he said Thursday.

After the emails were released Wednesday morning, Christie's office stayed quiet for hours until he released a brief statement, saying he had been misled by a member of his staff, and that the behavior was "not representative of me or my Administration in any way."

The Emails, Texts

The documents lay out the closures in some detail.

On Aug. 13, Kelly wrote, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." To which Wildstein responded, "Got it."

George Washington Bridge
Wikimedia Commons / Fly Navy

The George Washington Bridge, which connects Manhattan and Fort Lee, is the world's busiest vehicular bridge. Under the ruse of a traffic study, New Jersey officials allegedly plotted to close several lanes of traffic on the bridge, causing nightmare traffic jams for four days.

On Sept. 6, Wildstein sent an email to Kelly that included a statement to release announcing the traffic study. "We are ready to do this, can you have someone call the Mayor of Springfield and tell him that Gov has approved $60k for their traffic study."

The included announcement read: "The Township of Springfield has requested LAP funding for a Master Plan Re-examination Report. The Township requested that the Re-examination include a critical Traffic Study for Morris Avenue to assist in the redevelopment of the downtown and a Sustainability Element to assist the Township in getting certified by Sustainable New Jersey. $60,000."

In a series of heavily redacted messages Sept. 10, Baroni wrote Wildstein, saying, "Presently we have four very busy traffic lanes merging into only one toll booth..... The bigger problem is getting the kids to school. Help please. It's maddening."

'Is it Wrong That I am Smiling?'

Shortly after Baroni sent this message, an unnamed person forwarded it, adding, "Sokolich text to Baroni." Another unnamed person replied, "Is it wrong that I am smiling?"

Then, on Sept. 17, a message between two unnamed parties read: "From sokolich to Baroni: We should talk. Someone needs to tell me that the recent traffic debacle was not punitive in nature. The last four reporters that contacted me suggest that the people they are speaking with absolutely believe it to be punishment. Try as I may to dispel these rumors I am having a tough time."

In-Person Apology

Christie said he would travel to Fort Lee Thursday afternoon to apologize to Sokolich in person and to the town's residents.

"I think they need to see me do that in person," Christie said. Christie was informed mid-press conference that Sokolich responded, telling Christie not to show up, saying his visit would be "premature" and "disruptive."

Christie, determined to make an in-person apology, traveled to Fort Lee anyway, where Sokolich accepted a meeting with him Thursday afternoon.

"I'm glad he came. I take him for his word, which is he had nothing to do with it. We're not rooting for facts to come about to suggest he was involved," Sokolich said, according to CNN.com.

"Mayor Sokolich was never on my radar screen. ... I never saw this as political retribution because I didn't think he did anything to us," Christie said, adding, "Until I saw his picture last night on television, I wouldn't have been able to pick him out of a lineup."

Christie reiterated: “Just so we’re really clear: I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution, and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here, regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover.”

Christie has pledged to have individual discussions with each member of his senior staff in the coming days.

   

Tagged categories: Bridges; Ethics; Laws and litigation; Politics

Comment from john kern, (1/10/2014, 7:38 AM)

Does Paint Square really have to become a political forum?


Comment from RICHARD SMITH, (1/10/2014, 8:36 AM)

I thought I was reading the Huffington Post!! Paint Square, please stick with Blasting and Coating. The Drive-By Media can handle the garbage just fine.


Comment from Keith Gabbard, (1/10/2014, 9:45 AM)

I totally agree. Paint Square articles and subsequent comments need to stay focused on Blasting / Painting and related, while comments should be free of specific product endorsements.


Comment from Will Fultz, (1/10/2014, 11:20 AM)

I don’t come to this website to get this kind of news. Please stick to coating/painting/surface preparation type of related issues going forward. Thank you.


Comment from Carl Thompson, (1/10/2014, 11:50 AM)

This was the clearest , most unbiased explanation of what happened that I have seen. Thank you, and I hope that Christie is telling the truth.


Comment from Mark Anater, (1/10/2014, 7:41 PM)

Paint Square often reports on stories related only incidentally to the coatings industry. It regularly runs stories on everything from workers comp to Obamacare debates to criminal investigations, because they affect businesses and individuals in the industry. You may disagree with the decision to run this story, since it has little to do with the industry, but to decry PS for being "political" is not a good criticism.


Comment from Jim Johnson, (1/13/2014, 1:15 PM)

Politics impact every facet of our lives. It is impossible to not be impacted by politics. If you read the title of the article and you felt it was not of interest then why did you click on it? Politics affects every facet of your painting project, the blasting, the containment, the coating itself and the application and warranty. Yet you do not want to hear about crooked politics? I was once in a conversation with an elected politician in NYC and he was commenting on the cost to paint the Verazanno bridge. I remarked that it is totally conceivable that with the correct surface preparation, the correct coating and correct application, along with rigid enforcement of the specification the coating should last 20 years. His response - Jeeze! Do you realize how many painters that would put out of work? And they all vote! Politics is not a game as politics costs us our liberty and our income. Politics is what tells us what kind of light bulbs we must use, how much water we may use to flush, what size big gulp we may buy and what allowable levels are and causes generational theft by spending our grand kids income to pay for what they spend today.


Comment from Keith Gabbard, (1/14/2014, 9:05 AM)

The Space Frontier, Benghazi, the Super Bowl, world hunger are all news that affect our lives. They all have as much to do with the Paint and Coatings Industry News as does this article - which is to say next to nothing. Sorry - this type of info is readily available on many other news media.


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