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.
Top Christie Aide Is Out at Port Authority
Friday, December 13, 2013 - 10:50 AM
Bill Baroni, Governor Chris Christie's top aide at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has resigned, Governor Chris Christie announced Friday.
That brings to two the number of top Christie aides who have resigned in the wake of a roiling controversy over the abrupt closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge back in September, which snarled traffic for a word week and was said to be political revenge on the Mayor of Fort Lee, who hadn't endorsed Christie for re-election.
Last week, Christie's number two appointee at the Port Authority David Wildstein, who had ordered the study, also resigned.
Governor Christie thanked Baroni for his four years of service and said he accepted the resignation because "it had been a distraction." He appointed Deborah Gramiccioni, his director of the Authorities Unit, to be his top appointee in the Port Authority. Christie said he had planned to ask Baroni to move on in any event before his second term starts, but that he had moved it up because of the controversy.
In testimony Monday , the head of the Port Authority, Pat Foye, said under oath that Baroni and Wildstein had broken federal laws back in September when they abruptly closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge, snarling traffic for a work week, and Foye said, endangering emergency vehicles. Two other top aides testified that Baroni and Wildstein instructed them not to tell the Mayor of Fort Lee about the closures -- and that the two deliberately hid the scheme from Foye.
And Foye denied the existence of a "traffic study," which Baroni had told legislators in earlier testimony was the reason for the closure. Two other top Port Authority aides testified on Monday that they had never seen a "traffic study" like this.
But on Friday, Christie said he took Baroni at his word. "You really think I want to, like now, go and say "show me the traffic study so I can now read it? The fact is [former] Senator Bill Baroni is a friend of mine, an outstanding public servant...and I have no reason not to believe him."
Christie said he had listened to "most of" the testimony, and went to parse as to parse Foye's words. "I don't think Foye ever said anything that was inconsistent with what Baroni said," Christie argued.
“Do you agree that using lane closures for political purposes is the wrong thing to do?” Foye was asked at the hearing. “The use of any of our facilities other than in the public interest is improper,” Foye said.
The other two aides who testified said everything about the "study" was "at variance" with Port Authority procedures.
"I'm responsible for everything that happens in this government," Christie said. "I don't know anything about it it, but I'm responsible," adding that he was a "big boy."
Christie also said "the Mayor of Fort Lee was not somebody who was on my radar screen," though he added he "might have" met him "at some Bergen county event somewhere." He answered that he had "absolutely not" ordered the closures to exact political retribution, and hadn't even heard of the lane closures until an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal about them.
And Christie denied a Wall Street Journal report that he had called Governor Cuomo to complain about Foye. "The story is categorically wrong," Christie said, "I did not have that conversation with Governor Cuomo..and when the story came out, I called him and said 'Did we talk about this?' and he said 'No.'" But when asked if he'd discussed the issue with Cuomo, Christie said: "I'm going to keep to my longstanding policy and his longstanding policy that we don't talk about the content of our conversations unless a third party who was not involved mischaracterizes it to all of you."
Christie said he would not call for reforms in the Port Authority because the two states have "different interests."
His new appointee, Deborah Gramiccioni, 41, began working for Christie a decade ago when the governor was US Attorney. She is close enough with the governor that they have attended Bruce Springsteen shows together. An attorney and native of Livingston, Gramiccioni was appointed to a key position at the start of Christie's first term: director of the Authorities Unit, which is charged with overseeing the dozens of quasi-governmental agencies throughout the state.
Reigning in the corruption and spending of this "shadow government," as it is widely known, become a key part of the Christie brand at the beginning of his term. Gramiccioni was the woman who went to he meetings of these agencies -- including the Port Authority -- and made recommendations on when to overrule their actions and fire their leaders.
Gramiccioni is now headed to a bi-state agency long known for patronage, corruption and dysfunction. But she's accustomed to that. "I have very thick skin, I'm prepared for a fight, and I know how to go on offense when necessary," she said in a 2011 Philadelphia Inquirer profile. "I go to sleep at night knowing the next day is going to be another battle. And I look forward to it."
A former captain of the University of Pennsylvania soccer team, Gramiccioni's husband, Chris, is the acting county prosecutor in Monmouth County. Her father, Marvin Goldklang, is a limited partner in the ownership of the Yankees.
Despite the fact that she's quick with a smile around the Statehouse, former colleagues nicknamed her "tornado" for her hard-charging style.