Christie scandal: Damage-control worries followed N.J. lane closings
Trenton, N.J. - Officials squabbled over media leaks and worried about bad publicity in the days after lane closings near the George Washington Bridge caused huge traffic jams that now appear to have been politically orchestrated by a member of Gov. Chris Christie's administration and key allies, documents released Friday show.
In the documents, officials appointed by Christie seemed more concerned about the political fallout than the effects of the gridlock in the town of Fort Lee during four mornings in September.
The thousands of pages were released by a New Jersey legislative committee investigating the scandal, which could haunt Christie's expected run for president in 2016. The documents mostly involve the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that runs the bridge.
Lawmakers are looking into allegations that Christie loyalists engineered the tie-ups to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie for re-election.
The documents show that the traffic mess created tension between New York and New Jersey appointees at the Port Authority, with the New York side angrily countermanding the lane closings.
In the correspondence, Port Authority chairman David Samson, a Christie appointee, suggested that the authority's executive director, Patrick Foye, who was appointed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, had leaked to a reporter an internal memo ordering an end to the lane closings.
Samson called that possibility "very unfortunate for NY/NJ relations."
On Thursday, Christie moved to contain the damage from the scandal, firing his deputy chief of staff, cutting ties to one of his chief political advisers and apologizing for the traffic jams. Two Christie appointees at the Port Authority resigned last month as the scandal unfolded.
Christie has denied any involvement in the lane closings, and the two batches of documents released on Wednesday and Friday do not implicate him.
The latest documents contain several emails from Port Authority media relations staff to higher-ups reporting on calls from reporters with questions about the closings. The agency did not respond to those calls.
It was Foye's Sept. 13 email that ordered the lanes reopened that generated deep discussion. In it, Foye called the decision to close the lanes "abusive" and added, "I believe this hasty and ill-advised decision violates federal law."
Bill Baroni, the Christie-appointed deputy director who has since resigned, forwarded a copy of the angry email to Christie's scheduling secretary.
Later that morning, Baroni emailed Foye: "I am on my way to office to discuss. There can be no public discourse."
Foye responded: "Bill that's precisely the problem: there has been no public discourse on this."
Baroni later authorized a statement for reporters explaining that the closings were part of a traffic study.
In recent weeks, there have been questions about the whether the closings were part of a legitimate study.
Christie himself said on Thursday: "I don't know whether this was a traffic study that then morphed into a political vendetta or a political vendetta that morphed into a traffic study."
The newly released documents show that there was, in fact, a traffic study that was done, or at least a preliminary one. There were emails from Port Authority contractors in late August on the mechanics and timing of a study.
Two versions of a study turned up in the documents - one was six pages and the other 16. Both were dated Sept. 12, the day before the lanes reopened.
The documents include study findings that Baroni gave to lawmakers at a hearing last year: When the lanes were closed, the main bridge traffic moved a bit faster, but local traffic had major delays.
Michael Cassidy, a University of California-Berkeley engineering professor who occasionally works with the California Department of Transportation, told The Associated Press that the preliminary study appears to be a legitimate internal report of the sort transportation officials often circulate among themselves.
"It could well be a good-faith effort, if not the finest in the annals. I cannot say this is not a study," he said. "You wouldn't want to publish it in an academic journal."
How to deal with the fallout from the traffic jams became an issue.
In an Oct. 9 email exchange under the subject "morning clips," Philippe Danielides, a senior adviser at the Port Authority, asked David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the agency who has since resigned, "Has any thought been given to writing an op-ed or providing a statement about the GWB study? Or is the plan just to hunker down and grit our way through it?"
"Yes and yes," Wildstein replied.
In a Sept. 17 email, Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak appears to send Wildstein a response to be sent to a reporter writing about the lane closings. "Traffic studies or pilots are done all the time," he wrote. "They're temporary, and if they're not done, how can the effectiveness of a new approach be tested?"
The documents also showed confusion from some Port Authority employees as the closings were starting.
One employee asked, "What is driving this?" Another responded that he was wondering the same thing: "It seems like we are punishing all for the sake of a few."
And another employee passed along a complaint from a woman who said that her husband, who had been out of work for more than a year, was 40 minutes late for a job interview because of the tie-ups.
One Port Authority police officer went searching for answers.
"The undersigned inquired if this is a permanent plan or temporary," Capt. Darcy Licorish wrote in an email recounting her meeting with the bridge manager. "The manager could not supply an answer to that or other questions. Inquiry was also made as to the notifications of the township. No answers could be supplied."
AP REPORTERS DAVID PORTER AND KATIE ZEZIMA IN NEWARK, JIM FITZGERALD IN WHITE PLAINS, N.Y., AND CARA ANNA IN NEW YORK CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT.
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