Right before Thanksgiving last year, the ball began rolling for what has been a multiple month journey of stories, press conferences, debates/conversations, and much more regarding the ethics of Governor Chris Christie’s administration. On November 20th, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19), who chairs the Assembly Transportation, Public Works, and Independent Authorities Committee, would send a letter out to multiple individuals to begin a hearing process.
Those being called upon to testify were: Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, Police Superintendent Michael Fedorko, and Director of Interstate Capital Projects David Wildstein. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich was also invited to testify but was not threaten with a subpoena like the others. The biggest name among the group was Wildstein as the point person behind the lane closures issued on the George Washington Bridge last September. Wisniewski was able to get subpoena power for his committee to begin these proceedings.
Wisniewski saw a growing need for a hearing based on various factors including the Port Authority’s failure to explain the lane closings on the George Washington Bridge and the raised suspicion that there might have been political motivation behind those closings. The biggest aspect of the latter factor was the potential for revenge since Mayor Sokolich, a Democrat, did not endorse Christie, a Republican, during his reelection campaign in 2013.
The first major action after Wisniewski’s actions was Wildstein’s resignation.
The issue has become a distraction and I’m going to move on.
Wildstein would mention he was likely going to leave his role after four years anyway sometime in 2014 and was simply speeding that timing up despite the fact that he could have been removed based on what was likely to be revealed. Those revelations would come out sooner than Wildstein likely hoped.
Before Wildstein could resign, Baroni had already told the committee that Wildstein had ordered the closings as part of a traffic study to determine how bridge traffic would be affected if three of the dozen upper level toll lanes were used only for local access. Wildstein’s decision was based upon the belief that the overall flow of traffic would be improved if fewer lanes were dedicated to local traffic.
Baroni’s statement still left Wisniewski and other Democrats skeptical if that was the full story or real reason behind the lane closures. Foye was the person who would lift the closures as he saw the closures as a danger and opened up the potential for a threat to the public safety of those who use the bridge and depend on it.
In the wake of Wildstein’s resignation, the Christie administration would state;
Mr. Wildstein has been a tireless advocate for New Jersey’s interests at the Port Authority. We are grateful for his commitment and dedication to the important work of the Port Authority and thank him for his service to the people of New Jersey and the region.
About a week after Wildstein resigned, Baroni would follow suit.
In the wake of Baroni’s resignation, Christie would voice;
Bill Baroni is a friend of mine, has been an outstanding public servant both in his time in the Legislature and his time at the Port Authority and I have no reason not to believe him.
While Wisniewski would utter,
Mr. Baroni’s resignation was overdue and a good thing for New Jersey. His inability to be clear, professional and honest meant he was no longer going to be effective in his role, if he ever was effective.
State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) would exclaim when talking about the two resignations,
The resignations of the two highest-ranking New Jersey officials at the Port Authority is clearly an admission of guilt, but it doesn’t put an end to this story. We still don’t have a full accounting of what happened, why it was allowed to occur, everyone who was involved and what their motivations were.
As developments continued to build, the next wrinkle would involve Wisniewski’s suspicion about the decision to close the lanes likely coming from someone outside of the Port Authority as he heard from individuals and more details were studied.
Then right before he was about to give his State of the State address, a member of Christie’s administration was linked to Wildstein and an email would expand the spotlight on this matter. It would provide more evidence to back Wisniewski’s suspicions.
It was revealed that Christie’s deputy chief of staff had advance knowledge of the shut down of the lanes on the George Washington Bridge.
Bridget Anne Kelly, deputy chief of staff, on August 13th would write a short email to Wildstein that read:
Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.
A month later those traffic problems would occur.
Wildstein would respond back,
After the governor had vehemently stated no connection to the lane closures, having a top ranking member of his administration directly connected to what happened expanded the shadow of suspicion lurking over Christie and his administration.
The email linking Kelly to Wildstein would lead state Senator Richard Codey (D-27) to exclaim,
This goes to the personal integrity of the governor’s office. The governor said he asked everyone in his office if they were involved in this, and he said the answer it was a blanket no. Obviously, there’s more lies there than in the confessional.
State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) would add,
These disclosures are disturbing, damning and extremely damaging to the credibility of the Port Authority and the Christie Administration. They provide the strongest evidence yet that the lane closures were an intentional act of political retribution, that the excuse of a traffic study was a myth and that those involved tried to close ranks to cover up their actions and intentions. The disregard for the impact the closures would have on the Fort Lee community and the willingness to put the safety of local residents at risk is one of the most disturbing revelations in the correspondence. It appears to be a political dirty trick that was planned and executed with a callous disregard its consequences. The indications that the trail leads back to the Governor’s office elevates the seriousness of this episode and raises more questions about who else was involved, who else was informed and who else participated in withholding information. It is past time for everyone involved to come clean. The stonewalling, the sidestepping and misleading excuses have to end. The Port Authority officials already implicated need to tell the full truth, the Authority’s board members need to take responsibility and the administration needs to be honest and accountable.
Mayor Sokolich, the mayor of the city largely affected by the closings, would also voice;
I’ve said this many times. I don’t recall a specific request to endorse but the events that led up to all of this I guess you can interpret to be somehow attracting me to endorse. I didn’t want to endorse for several reasons, not the least of which is I’m a Democrat. I was supportive of Ms. (Barbara) Buono (the Democratic gubernatorial nominee). I wasn’t prepared to do that. But I’m grateful to my instincts because they certainly have proven me to be correct. Because nobody should have to do anything like that or provide any support under threat of retribution.
He would continue,
Let me tell you, I’ve always said from that Monday when traffic was stopped, and now we know it to have been stopped intentionally, a little bit I remained in the background because I was always scared about what would happen to Fort Lee when you stop reporting on this and all the other media channels stop reporting on it three months, six months, a year from now. Who’s to say what they’re going to do to my borough, to my residents, to my citizens and to me? We’re concerned about that. Who’s to say that in six months they’re not going to find some guy that’s going to actually do a study and suggest that we shouldn’t have lanes or we should only get one lane? They can wreak havoc on our community, they can wreak havoc on the safety and well being of our residents. That’s my concern.
After multiple state and national officials weighed in, Christie would finally utter;
What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable. 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. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.
This would only be the beginning of what was to come.