Political motivations were at the heart of a plan by allies of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to spark a massive traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge, according to an internal report prepared by lawyers on behalf of Christie.
The report found that David Wildstein, a top Christie associate, said that he personally informed the governor of the lane closures that prompted the traffic problems in September while they were still underway, and that Christie said he had no recollection of the conversation.
The internal review, which cleared Christie of wrongdoing by finding that he did not know about the lane closures before they occurred, was greeted skeptically by critics, who said it was stacked in his favor. Private lawyers leading the investigation were hired by the governor’s office at a cost of $1 million to taxpayers. And key figures in the incident, including Wildstein and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, declined to take part.
The lane closures also are under investigation by a federal prosecutor and by state lawmakers, who have questioned whether Christie knew about the traffic jam and its political origins.
The release of the 360-page internal review Thursday came as Christie, a Republican who is considering a 2016 presidential bid, continued to try to stabilize his image, which has been battered since the scandal erupted after his reelection in the fall.
Read the document
Hours after the report was released, Christie sat for an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer in which he again pinned all the blame on rogue underlings.
“Sometimes people do inexplicably stupid things,” he said, adding later: “None of it made any sense to me. And, to some extent, still does not.”
Christie defended the credibility of the investigators his office hired, saying, “They’re not going to whitewash anything for me.”
New Jersey Democrats on Thursday dismissed the internal review. The lawmakers leading the legislative inquiry, Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski (D) and state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D), cited “deficiencies that raise questions about a lack of objectivity and thoroughness.”
The lawyers behind the internal report spent two months conducting 70 interviews and reviewing 250,000 pages of documents. They questioned Christie and pored over his e-mails and text messages. They found that the bridge plan was hatched by Wildstein, who worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and that Kelly was the only member of the governor’s staff in on it.
It was Kelly who wrote a previously released e-mail to Wildstein in August indicating that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” He responded with “got it.”
The internal inquiry found that Wildstein had long expressed interest in some kind of traffic study of the bridge’s toll lanes. But it concluded that there was evidence that Kelly and Wildstein engineered the closures at least in part “for some ulterior motive to target” Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor.
Randy Mastro, who led the investigation, said there was “not a shred of evidence” to show that Christie had prior knowledge of the decision to close the lanes.
Democrats have seized on the apparent targeting of Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich (D) as evidence of a culture of hardball politics on Christie’s team, regardless of whether the governor was aware of the scheme. And some Christie critics in recent months have stepped forward to offer what they say are additional examples of political retribution carried out by the governor’s office.
The internal report discounted such allegations — and defended Christie’s trademark style.
“Frankness alone . . . does not equate to encouraging acts of political retaliation. And we found no evidence to support such a leap,” the investigators wrote.
It also sought to cast doubt on one of the most prominent cases Christie critics cited apart from the bridge issue. The report concluded that claims from Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer (D) were “unsubstantiated” and, in some respects, “demonstrably false” when she alleged that Christie aides had threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy relief funding if she did not support a development favored by Christie allies.
Zimmer, who declined to take part in the review, called the result a “one-sided whitewash.”
On the bridge incident, the report portrays the governor as having been in the dark about Kelly’s and Wildstein’s actions even as he sought to learn more about the lane closures.
“The confessionals are open,” the report recounts Christie telling top staff members in December, urging them to come forward if they were involved. Kelly did not do so, the report found.
Attorneys for Wildstein and Kelly did not respond to requests for comment.
Wildstein’s account that he told Christie about the traffic jam at the time contradicts Christie’s claim that he learned of it only after the lanes were reopened.
According to the review, Wildstein told Christie press secretary Michael Drewniak over dinner in December that he had alerted Christie to a bridge traffic study while the lanes were still closed. Wildstein said the conversation occurred at a public event the two had attended in that time frame.
Drewniak said Wildstein did not indicate that he told Christie there were political motivations for the closures, merely that a study was underway.
Wildstein and Christie were together for a 9/11 memorial ceremony, and the investigators concluded that that probably was the event Wildstein was referring to. But the report said that Christie has no memory of the conversation and that, even if it had occurred, he would have had no reason to find the information notable.
Although Christie has indicated that he felt no animosity toward Sokolich that would have motivated an effort to use a traffic jam to punish him, the report concludes that Kelly and Wildstein were upset with the mayor.
The source of their displeasure remains cloudy, according to the review, which found little evidence that Sokolich was targeted because he had declined to endorse Christie’s reelection campaign, as has long been alleged.
Still, the report reveals that the day before she and Wildstein agreed that it was “time for some traffic problems,” Kelly had called another Christie official to reconfirm that Sokolich would not be endorsing Christie.
“Kelly responded, in sum or substance, that that was all she needed to know,” the report says.The private lawyers Christie hired recommended a series of changes to prevent similar incidents.
Three days later, after learning that an aide had met with the mayor, she reacted angrily. “I am on fire,” she wrote in an e-mail.
On learning from her staff that Sokolich was extremely upset with the lane closures, she responded in an e-mail, “Good.”
They said state employees should be restricted from using private e-mail accounts for public business. Kelly, Wildstein and others routinely used personal e-mail addresses, operating under the belief that their messages would not be subject to laws regarding public records.
Robert Costa contributed to this report.