Top Christie staff sought to disrupt traffic as revenge
Newly released emails and text messages show that Gov. Chris Christie's office was closely involved with lane closings on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge in September, and that officials closed the lanes as retribution against the Democratic mayor whose town was gridlocked as a result.
The growing scandal around the bridge threatens Mr. Christie at the moment he assumes an even larger position on the national stage, as chairman of the Republican Governors Association and a leading candidate for his party's presidential nomination in 2016.
In the documents, obtained by The New York Times and other news outlets on Wednesday morning, Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff in Mr. Christie's office, gave a signal to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to close the lanes about two weeks before the closings occurred.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," she emailed David Wildstein, Mr. Christie's close friend from high school, and one of his appointees at the Port Authority, which controls the bridge. Mr. Christie and some officials at Port Authority have said the closings were done as part of a traffic study, but they caused havoc for days, backing up traffic for hours.
Mr. Christie's handpicked chairman of the Port Authority, David Samson, was also involved in the closings, according to the emails, which describe his efforts to "retaliate" against New York officials who had not been told of the changes and sought to ease the gridlock.
While the emails do not establish that the governor himself called for the lane closings, they do show his staff was intimately involved, contradicting Mr. Christie's repeated avowals that no one in his office or campaign knew.
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That conflicts with the governor's carefully crafted reputation as the rare politician who will tell it like it is, even when the news is difficult. And the pettiness described in the emails flies against the image Mr. Christie's aides have sought to craft for him, of a new kind of leader, above the partisan politics and small-mindedness of Washington.
After the emails were released, Mr. Christie canceled his one public event for the day, which had been billed as an announcement of progress in the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. He issued a statement in the late afternoon, saying he had been "misled" and emphasizing he had no prior knowledge of the events.
"I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge," Mr. Christie said.
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"This type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it, because the people of New Jersey deserve better," he added. "This behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions."
The emails indicate that Mr. Christie's staff and his associates at the Port Authority were closely aware of the political context. Mr. Christie was leaning on local Democratic officials to endorse his re-election bid so that he could then seek his party's presidential nomination by arguing that he was the candidate who could attract bipartisan support in a blue state.
Mr. Christie won re-election in November by 22 points, and instantly became a leading candidate for his party's presidential nomination by winning across many demographic groups. His campaign boasted that he had been endorsed by more than 50 local Democratic officials.
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But the documents released Wednesday further the perception of what Republicans as well as Democrats in New Jersey have long said about the governor: that he wields fear and favor to get what he wants, and lashes out at even the smallest perceived slights.
During the campaign, as Mr. Christie and his associates leaned on Democratic local officials for endorsements, many mayors whispered that they feared the governor would withhold money or favor if they did not go along. Even Republican lawmakers who have supported Mr. Christie tell stories of being punished when he perceived them as not supporting him enough.
The mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, is a Democrat and did not endorse Mr. Christie. In the obtained emails and texts, Mr. Christie's staff and appointees appeared gleeful when the abrupt lane closings gridlocked the town for days, beginning with the first day of school and including the anniversary of Sept. 11. Mr. Sokolich, who had not been informed of the closings, texted Bill Baroni, the governor's top appointee at the Port Authority, asking for "help" because the lane closings were making children on buses late to school.
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