Chief official believed NJ lane closings illegal
TRENTON, New Jersey (AP) — The September lane closings near the George Washington Bridge that caused huge traffic jams and now threaten the rise of Republican star Chris Christie violated federal law, a chief official said in an email ordering the lanes reopened.
The Sept. 13 email was among thousands of pages released Friday by a New Jersey legislative committee investigating the scandal, which could haunt New Jersey Gov. Chris 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 heavily trafficked bridge.
Christie has repeatedly apologized and fired a top aide after documents released earlier this week revealed that officials in his administration may have intentionally caused traffic jams at the foot of one of the world’s busiest bridges in an act of political revenge.
In their writings, officials appointed by Christie, seemed more concerned about the political fallout than the damage done by lane closures. Federal prosecutors are investigating. Christie previously had said his staff had nothing to do with the lane closings in September at the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey and New York City, and he still says he had no personal knowledge of them. Two batches of documents released on Wednesday and Friday do not implicate him.
The lane closures caused hours-long delays at one of the major gateways to New York City. Documents show that Christie’s aides appeared to close the lanes to punish the Democratic mayor of the town of Fort Lee, which sits at one end of the bridge, for refusing to endorse the governor during his recent re-election campaign
The newly released documents show 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 after repeated questions from the media over the closings went unanswered.
“I believe this hasty and ill-advised decision violates federal law,” Patrick Foye, authority executive director, said in the email. An appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Foye called the decision to close the lanes “abusive” and ordered them reopened.
Bill Baroni, a Christie-appointed deputy director for the authority who has since resigned, forwarded a copy of the 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.
Christie moved Thursday 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. Besides Baroni, Christie appointee David Wildstein resigned last month from the Port Authority as the scandal unfolded.
The New Jersey governor has cast himself as a straight-talking politician who transcends partisan politics, but the scandal has him on the defensive. “I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team,” the famously blunt Christie said Thursday during a nearly two-hour press conference.
In recent weeks, questions have been raised about whether the lane closings were part of a legitimate study. Christie himself said 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 there was, in fact, a traffic study that was done, or at least a preliminary one. Two versions 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.
The documents also 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.
In the correspondence, Port Authority chairman David Samson, a Christie appointee, suggested that Foye 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.”
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.
Both Democrats and Republicans said the governor’s presidential prospects could be severely undermined if evidence emerges that contradicts his denials.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman is reviewing the case, and the general inspector of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the bridge, also is investigating.
The scandal comes on the eve of a second term for Christie that was designed to be a springboard to a national campaign after he cruised to re-election in November. In less than two weeks, he plans to celebrate his inauguration at Ellis Island, a historic gateway for millions of immigrants and a symbolic location designed to showcase his broad appeal.
AP reporters David Porter and Katie Zezima in Newark, Jim Fitzgerald in White Plains, New York, and Cara Anna in New York contributed to this report.