Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
A series of email messages to the central figure in the fray surrounding the closure of traffic lanes to the George Washington Bridge show a top aide to Governor Chris Christie was directly involved in what has become a burgeoning scandal for Christie. "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," the aide to Christie, Bridget Anne Kelly, wrote to David Wildstein. A minute later, Wildstein replied "got it."
The email was sent on August 13 from Kelly's private Yahoo account, a month before Wildstein, a top Christie appointee in the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, abruptly ordered the lane closures. Those closures caused a work week's worth of traffic jams in Fort Lee. Fort Lee's mayor, Mark Sokolich, did not endorse Chris Christie for re-election, and it's been widely speculated that his refusal to do so prompted the closures—a charge Christie has denied.
The electronic communications show a detailed trail of communications between Wildstein and Kelly, including one acknowledging that the closures were hidden from from Fort Lee officials. And they show scheming by Christie appointees to throw reporters off the scent.
The explicit emails, which include ethnic slurs and mocking schoolchildren, present the greatest crisis of his career for Christie, a rising star in the Republican party, and a likely 2016 presidential candidate. They show his team as a gang of bullies, reflecting a widespread charge that Democrats have leveled but never proved.
Christie cancelled his only public event Wednesday, but late in the day his office issued the following statement from the Governor: "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."
According to testimony at a legislative hearing, the closures were "at variance" with normal procedure and were undertaken without the knowledge of either the mayor or Pat Foye, the Port Authority's executive director, an appointee of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. The two governors jointly control the bi-state authority.
Kelly is Christie's deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs—making her directly in charge of handling relationships with local officials, like mayor Mark Sokolich. Wildstein was a high school classmate of Christie's. He resigned in December, calling the bridge scandal a distraction. Bill Baroni, Christie's top Port Authority appointee, also resigned.
The emails show Wildstein and Kelly communicated about the closures for well over a month before they occurred. "Call when you have a chance re: Ft. Lee -- can wait for tomorrow," Wildstein wrote on Aug. 28. Kelly replied, "Away with kids. Will call in the morning."
On September 7, two days before the closures began, Wildstein emailed: "I will call you Monday am to let you know how Fort Lee goes." "Great," Kelly responded.
The morning of the 9th, Wildstein told Kelly that the Mayor of Fort Lee had called Baroni. "Did he call him back?" Kelly asked. "Radio silence," Wildstein replied, before adding "his name comes right after Mayor Fulop," referring to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, another Democrat who had drawn Christie's ire.
On Friday, the 13th, after Foye angrily reversed the closures, Wildstein wrote to Kelly "The New York side gave Fort Lee back all three lanes this morning. We are appropriately going nuts. Samson helping us to retaliate," referring to David Sampson, the Port Authority chair, a Christie appointee. "What??" Kelly asked. To which Wildstein reponded: "Yes, unreal. Fixed now."
In December, Christie told reporters he'd spoken to everybody in his senior staff and that they'd assured him they were not involved in the lane closures. "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 said at that time.
Christie also said his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, knew nothing about the event. But the emails show Stepien and Wildstein discussing press coverage of the traffic tie-ups after the fact. In one email exchange, Wildstein says of Sokolich, "It will be a tough November for this little Serbian." Stepien, in his response, calls the Fort Lee Mayor "an idiot."
Kelly had taken over for Stepien, who left the administration to manage Christie's re-election campaign. Two weeks ago, Stepien was appointed to a post as a political adviser at the Republican Governors Association, which Christie heads. Just yesterday, Stepien became the head of the Republican Party in New Jersey. Christie is widely considered to be a leading candidate for president in 2016.
The emails were obtained by WNYC and other news organizations on Wednesday morning, a day before Wildstein is scheduled to testify before the New Jersey Assembly Transportation Committee.
An unknown texter also forwarded a text from Sokolich to Baroni pleading for help in ending the traffic. "The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help please. It's maddening." To which the texter added his own commentary: "Is it wrong that I am smiling?"
"No," Wildstein replied. "I feel badly about the kids, I guess," the texter wrote, referring to the fact that the traffic jams came on the first day of school, catching school buses in their web.
Wildstein's response: "They are the children of Buono voters." Barbara Buono was the Democratic candidate who ran against Christie last year.
The emails and texts are below.
(With reporting from Matt Katz, whose interview on the Brian Lehrer Show is above.)