Streams

Did Christie Aides Cover Up Bridgegate?

Monday, April 14, 2014

WNYC

A team of lawyers lead by Randy Mastro and hired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie asserted in a report released last month that within the governor's office, “there is no evidence of any cover-up” of wrongdoing associated with the now infamous September traffic jams at the Fort Lee end of the George Washington Bridge. 

But there is another reading of the documents — one that shows the governor's top aides in the statehouse and his allies and appointees at the Port Authority carefully tracking the scandal that's come to be known as Bridgegate, working frantically to throw reporters and legislators off the scent and — at key points — informing Christie himself of certain facts about the unfolding mess. 

Here is a chronology of how Christie's team responded as the GWB traffic jams drew scrutiny from the press and lawmakers:

Sept. 13: Executive Director Patrick Foye reopens the lanes to the George Washington Bridge and fires off an email calling the closures “hasty and ill-advised,” dangerous and illegal. After an exchange between Port Authority Chairman David Samson, a close Christie ally, and Bill Baroni, Christie’s top appointee at the agency, Baroni sends an email to Foye: “There can be no public discourse.”

Sept. 17: Reporters are asking more questions about the mysterious lane closures. Damage control begins. "We should sched. a meeting to stave off reporters,” writes Bill Baroni, the top New Jersey official at the Port Authority, to David Wildstein, who ordered the lanes closed.

Oct. 2: A Wall Street Journal story with more details about the mysterious traffic jams is published, and Samson and Wildstein are up before dawn to read it. Documents do not indicate surprise or outrage by anyone in the Port Authority's New Jersey office or the governor's office about the revelations that the lane closures jeopardized public safety. But Samson, the Port Authority chairman and a father figure to Christie, privately declares that Foye, who reopened the lanes, is "playing in traffic, bad mistake.” 

Baroni texts Wildstein about the article, referring to Maria Comella, Christie’s Director of Communications. “Comella didn’t think much of the story. Said nobody paying attention.”

Oct. 16: State Sen. Loretta Weinberg attends a meeting of the Port Authority board with questions about the official account of the traffic study. Christie staffer Regina Egea is there, observing. “Weinberg attended,” she notes in an email to the governor’s chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd; his counsel, Charles McKenna; and his spokesman, Michael Drewniak. “Questions ensued on Fort Lee but holding to script ‘all under review.’”

Oct. 18: Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak continues to get questions from reporters. He emails Kevin O’Dowd, Christie’s chief of staff: “A new high level of s**t is hitting the fan tonight on the Ft. Lee/GWB issue. Maybe you should know about it.”

But Drewniak’s response to reporters doesn’t reflect all the behind-the-scenes commotion. “For goodness sake, the Governor of the State of New Jersey doesn’t involve himself in traffic studies,” he said.

 Nov. 25: The Port Authority's Bill Baroni testifies before the state legislative committee investigating the lane closures. He brings with him a large photograph of the George Washington Bridge, a red Sharpie and many details about a “traffic study” now known to be non-existent.

The Mastro reports says Baroni was coached by top officials in the Christie administration to prepare for the testimony. Many of those officials had worked with the governor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office: Regina Egea, Nicole Crifo, Philip Kwon and Charles McKenna, the governor's counsel.

Nov. 26: Christie’s reelection campaign manager Bill Stepien emails Baroni: “Hey, great job yesterday. I know it's not a fun topic, and not nearly as fun as beating up on [the late U.S. Sen.] Frank Lautenberg, but I wanted to thank you.”

Wildstein texts Christie spokesman Drewniak: “Most importantly, Gov was not brought up in this.”

Dec. 2: New Jersey Public Radio’s Matt Katz asks Christie if he had any knowledge of lane closures. “I worked the cones, actually, Matt,” the governor responds, to laughter. “Unbeknownst to everybody, I was actually the guy out there, in overalls and a hat. I was the guy working the cones. You really are not serious.”

Dec. 3: The Port Authority police union chief, A friend of Wildstein’s, offers a cover story to reporters: the lane closures were his idea. That turned out to be false. In a rare direct communication with Samson, Wildstein forwards a news report about his friend's account, with no comment or additional explanation.

That night, Wildstein and Drewniak dine together in New Brunswick. According to the Mastro report, Wildstein tells Drewniak that he’d told the governor about the lane closures while they were happening, and that two of Christie’s top staff — campaign manager Stepien and Bridget Ann Kelly, the governor's deputy chief of staff — knew about them.

Dec. 4: The next day, Drewniak tells Christie about his conversation with Wildstein. According to the Mastro report, the governor tells his spokesman that it’s time for Wildstein and Baroni to go. Christie himself edits the press statement thanking Wildstein for his service, according to emails released by the legislature.

Dec. 5: Wildstein emails Drewniak: “Thanks again for all your sound advice last night."His resignation is made public the next day.

Dec. 13: Baroni resigns. “Bill Baroni has characterized this as a mistake,” Christie says in response to a question on whether he feels he's gotten to the bottom of what happened in Fort Lee. “I am not curious. Believe me, I’ve heard more about this than I ever wanted to hear.”

Christie says he is satisfied no one on his staff was involved. “I’ve made it very clear to everybody on my senior staff that if anyone had any knowledge about this, that they needed to come forward and tell me about it, and they’ve all assured me that they don’t," he says.

Jan. 9: The legislative committee investigating the lane closures releases the subpoenaed documents from Baroni and Wildstein — and for the first time, Bridget Ann Kelly’s email is made public. It was sent in August, the day after the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee declined to endorse Christie for re-election: “Time for traffic problems in Fort Lee," it said.

Christie fires Kelly and cuts ties to Stepien. He says he was blindsided by the news, and that he fired Kelly because she lied to him.

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Comments [8]

RW from Bronx

If Senator Schumer had shown concern about perhaps the most bloated, government entity in history, The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, he could have spoken up 30 or more years ago when the same issues existed. The PA has grown exponentially and will, no doubt continue to do so.

May. 06 2014 10:04 AM
Amanda Matthews from Omaha

I must admit I'm surprised. There was only one lone nut who tried to justify all of this because of Obama and the Dems in this article.

The Chris Cristie apologists must all have the night off.

Apr. 15 2014 12:06 AM
Sean Bailey from NYC

Excellent recap and a great example of useful journalism--not nowism. Thanks for stepping back and giving this story a perspective based on the facts. It has been a tiny bit disheartening to see the Mastro report exoneration repeated over and over again--including on WNYC--as if it was a legitimate, thorough, and objective investigation. Glad you show here the degree to which public statements show Christie's involvement.

Now, if you could just do a report that explains why the biggest public radio station in the U.S. feels compelled to broadcast re-runs of CarTalk (to a city where many folks don't even own a car)during an era when there are many fabulous new programs (and podcasts) not reaching NYC listeners.

Apr. 14 2014 02:29 PM
Matt

One thing I don't understand about Bill Baroni, is if he testified, it had to have been under oath, right? So if it's "known" as the timeline above says, that the so-called traffic study never existed, why isn't he being brought up on charges of perjury? Why instead does he have a new job at a law firm?

http://www.northjersey.com/news/nj-state-news/former-port-authority-official-bill-baroni-lands-job-with-law-firm-1.731872

Apr. 14 2014 11:45 AM

Part 3

The reality is that there had to have been far far larger numbers of people in on an illegal conspiracy to obstruct and disrupt traffic on the GWB, a strategic part of a federal interstate highway, on the week of 9-11...for the perverse purpose of advancing a political agenda. If al Qaeda had done this for just a few hours, let alone four days, everyone from Homeland Security to Governor Christie on down would have been screaming bloody murder and the suspected perpetrators would be rounded up and jailed without bail. The fact that no deaths resulted directly from the illegal lane closures would not be cited as a reason to go easy on the perpetrators...that was a matter of sheer providence. Tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of people spent hours stuck in traffic over a four day period. What is their time and inconvenience/disruption worth? How many gallons of gasoline were burnt and wasted that added to our burden of pollution? What about the health affects of that pollution...of all the stress caused to people for no *good* reason?

If this all "blows over" with no one doing serious prison time in a federal prison and with no real accounting of the whole truth, it will be an indication of just how systemically corrupt is our system of governance. The fact that so many former federal prosecutors are willing to sell their services in the furtherance of a blatantly criminal cover up is an indication of just how lightly they view official misconduct, cover ups and a kind of political terrorism that one would expect to see in a third world failed state, not in New Jersey, USA!

Of course, this is about FAR more than just the illegal lane closures (as bad as they are) , it's about all manner of systematic dirty dealing throughout the whole system of NJ governance and of the way the PANYNJ spends billions of dollars in tolls that they collect from millions of travelers/commuters.

In a healthy body politic, an offense of this nature...on this scale, would have resulted in articles of impeachment against the governor being introduced, clearly AT BEST...there is an overwhelming case for a virtually incredible level of incompetence at the very least. As it is, most of NJ lawmakers seem to STILL be either afraid of the dominant political machinery and in cahoots with it, either way it's a tragedy for good government in our state.

Apr. 14 2014 08:09 AM

I wish you would spend just as much time and effort examining the Obama administration as you are over a couple of stupid lane closures. Even if Christie knew about it what's the big deal? There are far worse things being done by Democrats and especially the Obama administration which are swept under the rug or just given a cursory nod.

Apr. 14 2014 08:07 AM

Excellent summary! It could be part of the outline for a 15 hour set of closing arguments in an eventual criminal trial.

Sadly, an extremely tiny number of New Jersey's population is informed on the details of what actually was done.

Most folks have a vague idea and only see the whole issue as whether or not there is an immediate "smoking gun" that nails Christie beyond a reasonable doubt. They don't see that there had to have been dozens of individuals throughout the PANYNJ and the governor's office who had to have been involved in the illegal lane closures and the ensuing cover up.

Of course, given the denials, cover ups and the millions of dollars spent on pre-emptive full scale legal/PR defense (at taxpayer expense) AND given the press's legitimate and appropriate reluctance to play the role of prosecutor, the public....(the vast majority of the public that doesn't spend hours each week following the details of the news) *still* doesn't get the seriousness of what was done and doesn't get that it would have been absolutely 100% impossible for two people (Wildstein and Kelly) to have planned, orchestrated, implemented and then covered up such an operation all by themselves.

The reality is that there had to have been far far larger numbers of people in on an illegal conspiracy to obstruct and disrupt traffic on the GWB, a strategic part of a federal interstate highway, on the week of 9-11...for the perverse purpose of advancing a political agenda. If al Qaeda had done this for just a few hours, let alone four days, everyone from Homeland Security to Governor Christie on down would have been screaming bloody murder and the suspected perpetrators would be rounded up and jailed without bail. The fact that no deaths resulted directly from the illegal lane closures would not be cited as a reason to go easy on the perpetrators...that was a matter of sheer providence. Tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of people spent hours stuck in traffic over a four day period. What is their time and inconvenience/disruption worth? How many gallons of gasoline were burnt and wasted that added to our burden of pollution? What about the health affects of that pollution...of all the stress caused to people for no *good* reason?

If this all "blows over" with no one doing serious prison time in a federal prison and with no real accounting of the whole truth, it will be an indication of just how systemically corrupt is our system of governance. The fact that so many former federal prosecutors are willing to sell their services in the furtherance of a blatantly criminal cover up is an indication of just how lightly they view official misconduct, cover ups and a kind of political terrorism that one would expect to see in a third world failed state, not in New Jersey, USA!

Part 2 follows...

Apr. 14 2014 08:05 AM

Part 2

Of course, given the denials, cover ups and the millions of dollars spent on pre-emptive full scale legal/PR defense (at taxpayer expense) AND given the press's legitimate and appropriate reluctance to play the role of prosecutor, the public....(the vast majority of the public that doesn't spend hours each week following the details of the news) *still* doesn't get the seriousness of what was done and doesn't get that it would have been absolutely 100% impossible for two people (Wildstein and Kelly) to have planned, orchestrated, implemented and then covered up such an operation all by themselves.

Apr. 14 2014 08:04 AM

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