Top Christie staff sought to disrupt traffic as revenge

Kate Zernike
Potential damage to Chris Christie campaign

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.

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
Getty Images

"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.

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"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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Christie's run to the White House

"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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"Is it wrong that I am smiling?" Mr. Wildstein texted Ms. Kelly.

"No," she texted back.

"I feel badly about the kids," he texted.

"They are the children of Buono voters," she said, referring to Mr. Christie's Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono, who was trailing consistently in the polls and lost by a wide margin.

Ms. Kelly is one of three deputy chiefs of staff in Mr. Christie's office, and a close member of his team. Her Twitter timeline included a photograph, before it was taken down Wednesday morning, of her celebrating her 40th birthday last year with the governor and other members of his staff.

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After the lane closings were reversed by New York officials at the Port Authority, New Jersey officials expressed panic that their plan was not causing enough trouble.

"The New York side gave Fort Lee back all three lanes this morning. We are appropriately going nuts," Mr. Wildstein wrote to Ms. Kelly. "Samson helping us to retaliate."

"What??" she emailed back.

"Yes, unreal. Fixed now," he emailed.

Mr. Sokolich texted Mr. Baroni later that month seeking to understand why the lanes were closed, and said that people were saying it was "punishment."

"Try as I may to dispel these rumors I am having a tough time," he wrote.

Mr. Baroni, Ms. Kelly and Mr. Wildstein showed some alarm, swearing and discussing how they could avoid Mr. Sokolich while also quieting the growing controversy.

Earlier this week, the Democratic mayor of Jersey City, Steve Fulop, said the governor's office had canceled meetings with him after he informed them he would not endorse the governor for re-election.

Mr. Christie's associates had been pressing hard on Mr. Fulop, a rising star in the Democratic Party who took office in July, but he resisted before finally endorsing Ms. Buono.

The emails show that Mr. Fulop's decision did not sit well with the governor's office. Mr. Christie's aides and the Port Authority officials talked about how they were refusing to return the telephone calls from Mr. Sokolich, the Fort Lee mayor. "Radio silence," Mr. Wildstein wrote to Ms. Kelly in an email. "His name comes right after mayor Fulop."

The documents released Wednesday are heavily redacted by Mr. Wildstein, who turned them over under a subpoena from Democratic legislators investigating the lane closings, making it hard to determine in some cases who is speaking.

But they indicate that Mr. Christie's staff, appointees at the Port Authority and members of his campaign staff were all intimately involved in discussing the growing scandal and how to react to it as early as October. One series of text messages between Ms. Kelly and Mr. Wildstein indicates that in early August, at the same time they were discussing the plan for the lane closings, they were trying to set up a meeting between Mr. Christie and Mr. Samson. It is not clear, however, that the meeting was regarding the lane closings, although later emails make clear that Mr. Samson was involved in those plans.

Mr. Baroni and Mr. Wildstein resigned their positions in December as the Port Authority's executive deputy director and director of interstate capital projects, respectively, as the scandal threatened Mr. Christie's political fortunes.

—By Kate Zernike for The New York Times.