New N.J. documents show extensive coverup in Fort Lee traffic shutdown

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s appointees worked furiously to conceal an apparent act of political retaliation in September that shut down a pair of local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge and paralyzed the small city of Fort Lee, N.J., according to a new trove of documents released Friday.

Inside the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the government agency that controls the bridge, Christie’s top lieutenants ignored complaints from Fort Lee’s police chief and angry rush-hour commuters. One woman called asking why the agency was “playing God with people’s jobs.”

The appointees instructed subordinates to stonewall reporters and produced a traffic study examining whether closing the lanes permanently might improve traffic flow. The study’s conclusion: “TBD,” shorthand for “to be determined.”

The traffic mayhem in Fort Lee burst into a full-bore political scandal this week after revelations that some of the governor’s closest allies were involved. The episode — featuring powerful state functionaries gleefully wreaking havoc on commuters — has quickly become a serious threat to Christie’s prospects as a leading Republican presidential candidate in 2016.

The hundreds of pages of e-mails and internal documents released Friday afternoon show for the first time how Christie loyalists inside the Port Authority worked to orchestrate a coverup after traffic mayhem swiftly arrived in Fort Lee on Sept. 9.

Graphic

A look at the traffic snarlup on the George Washington Bridge
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See how lane closures created a traffic snarlup on the George Washington Bridge.

Read the e-mails

Read the documents

Documents related to alleged retribution by the Christie administration against mayors who did not endorse the New Jersey governor's reelection.

The e-mails also reveal the extent to which Christie’s appointees kept their Port Authority colleagues and Fort Lee officials in the dark about their plans. In one example, Darcy Licorish of the Port Authority Police Department, who was tasked with helping direct motorists, wrote that her managers would not tell her whether the lane closures would be permanent or temporary.

The newly released e-mails do not appear to implicate Christie directly — and still do not definitively answer why the plot to strangle traffic in Fort Lee was hatched. But the records shed additional light on how the lane closures were carried out, following e-mails and text messages released Wednesday suggesting that the traffic jams may have been an act of political revenge against Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich.

In an emotional news conference Thursday, Christie apologized repeatedly and said he had been “blindsided” by his loyalists. He fired deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, a key architect of the lane closures plot, and banished Bill Stepien, his closest political adviser and campaign manager, for his role in the episode.

The e-mails released Friday detail a turf battle inside the Port Authority between two of Christie’s top appointees, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, and officials installed by New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D).

Early on Sept. 13 — after four straight days of lane closures — Patrick Foye, the agency’s executive director and a Cuomo appointee, e-mailed Baroni and other senior Port Authority officials to say he was “appalled” by the “dangers created to the public interest.” Foye said he believed that the “hasty and ill-advised decision” may have violated federal and state law, and he ordered the lanes reopened immediately.

Twenty minutes later, at 8:04 a.m., traffic was restored to all three lanes, and Fort Lee’s gridlock nightmare was over.

Foye asked other officials how they would “get word out” to the public. “We are going to fix this fiasco,” Foye wrote.

That’s when Baroni balked. “There can be no public discourse,” Baroni wrote to Foye.

“Bill that’s precisely the problem: there has been no public discourse on this,” Foye responded.

Baroni later forwarded Foye’s memo expressing alarm to Regina Egea, then the governor’s office’s liaison to the Port Authority and other agencies. Christie has since promoted Egea to be his chief of staff for his second term.

Baroni and Wildstein both resigned late last year as the bridge scandal began to escalate.

The documents — obtained by subpoena by Democratic lawmakers from Wildstein and others — include a reference to a meeting between Christie and David Samson, the man he appointed as chairman of the Port Authority. The meeting took place about a week before Kelly issued an August order to Wildstein, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

State Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D), who chairs the Assembly Transportation Committee, said that by submitting documents referring to the Christie-Samson meeting, Wildstein has signaled that it is related to the lane closures.

Wisniewski said the documents also show that senior members of Christie’s team were involved “in spin control once this story broke.”

Throughout the fall, local reporters peppered Steve Coleman, the Port Authority’s spokesman, with questions about the lane closings.

On Sept. 16, a Wall Street Journal reporter asked Coleman about the issue after some of the newspaper’s editors reported getting stuck in the bridge traffic the week before. Coleman passed the query up the chain of command, and Wildstein forwarded it to Baroni with the comment, “I call bull---- on this.”

As more queries came in, Coleman forwarded them to Baroni and Wildstein and asked how they would like the agency to respond. Wildstein forwarded one such inquiry to Michael Drewniak, Christie’s press secretary. In response to later inquiries, Coleman told Baroni and Wildstein, “I will not respond unless instructed to do so.”

On Oct. 9, Philippe Danielides, a senior adviser to Samson, e-mailed Wildstein a summary of that day’s news media stories and wrote, “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?”

Wildstein’s three-word reply: “Yes and yes.” He later forwarded the exchange to Baroni.

Rush-hour traffic on the George Washington Bridge is rarely smooth, but the cache of e-mails shows how ugly it got on the first day of the lane closures. Wildstein watched the mayhem he helped mastermind from the scene, texting detailed updates on Monday’s rush-hour traffic congestion in Fort Lee, the documents show.

Orange cones were set out before the sun rose blocking two of the bridge’s three local access lanes and forcing commuters to merge into one painfully slow toll lane. There was nowhere special for “EZ-Pass” drivers; everyone waited to pay the $13 toll in the “CASH” lane.

Two separate queues stretched down Fort Lee’s narrow streets for a half-mile until noon each day. At 10 a.m., an estimated 550 vehicles were lined up in Fort Lee awaiting access to the bridge, according to the Port Authority’s traffic study. Over a four-hour period, a total of 2,800 hours were lost to traffic delay, the study said.

Robert Durando, who oversees operations at the George Washington Bridge, wrote to other Port Authority officials saying the traffic diversion was “very expensive” and “labor intensive.”

Ostensibly, the purpose was to determine whether closing two of the three Fort Lee local toll lanes might help alleviate traffic entering the bridge from the main lanes, including Interstate 95. Early e-mails suggested blocking only one lane as a test, but, at Wildstein’s prompting, the closure was expanded to two lanes.

The e-mails show an immediate impact on Fort Lee, a small middle- and working-class commuter city of 35,000 across the river from Manhattan. About 9 a.m. on the first day, Fort Lee’s police chief called the Port Authority in a fury. Why hadn’t anybody given him a heads-up on the “new traffic pattern”? And how could he go about ending this “miserable failure”?

He got no immediate answer.

Emergency responders reported having trouble getting through the gridlock to find a missing child and help a woman in cardiac arrest. Sokolich called Port Authority officials to say that one EMS worker had to leave her ambulance to respond to a patient on foot.

On Friday, Eleni Demetrakopoulos, 21, recalled being stuck when her typically 10-minute commute took two hours during the September lane closures. “I kept going around and around,” the college biology major said. “Then I heard the bridge was closed. I was, like, ‘Oh well, that’s stupid.”

As Durando e-mailed some of his colleagues at the time: “Fort Lee is not happy.”

Gigi Anders in Fort Lee and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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