Three months into the Bridgegate scandal, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was asked about it for the first time. “I don’t know anything more than basically what has been in the newspaper, because it was basically a New Jersey issue,” Cuomo said. He was talking about a disruptive traffic jam that had engulfed the bi-state agency he runs with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
But newly-released records stemming from a WNYC freedom of information request show Cuomo and his top aides responding instantly and far more intensely to the abrupt lane closures on the George Washington Bridge than had previously been known.
The records show Cuomo's right-hand man immediately applauding the reversal of the lane closures on the world's busiest bridge, frequent consultations on communications strategy between Albany and top New York appointees at the Port Authority, and Cuomo himself getting on the phone to discuss the response as the scandal got hotter.
"It was exactly what should be done," a Cuomo spokesman said about the newly-released details of the administration's response. The spokesman added that the governor's office "was asking the agency to brief them on the facts."
To be sure, there’s nothing particularly startling about a governor and his top aides frequently consulting with the leaders of a multi-billion dollar authority about a burgeoning scandal.
But the record of email and phone traffic on the New York side paints a different picture from what the two governors have led the public to believe about high-level response to the lane closures.
And it contrasts sharply with Christie's claim that he was unaware and uninterested.
"My goodness, no," Christie's spokesman said early on. "The governor of the state of New Jersey does not involve himself in traffic studies."
Five top-level officials from Trenton, Albany and the Port Authority have told WNYC that Christie's nonchalant response was baffling. One described it as "consciously oblivious."
What also has become more apparent are the gaps in the record on the New Jersey side.
As WNYC recently reported, legal papers filed at the end of June by Christie's legal team acknowledge the existence of a private email account in the names of "Chris and Mary Pat Christie" that was never searched or turned over to investigators.
In addition, the whereabouts of the cell phone Christie was using at the time are unknown.
What is known is that Christie deleted 12 text messages exchanged with an aide about the Bridgegate investigation.
Gov. Cuomo’s Office Applauds a Job “Well Done”
The first indication that high-level Cuomo administration officials knew about the lane closures came on Friday, Sept. 13, 2013.
Pat Foye, the Cuomo-appointed executive director of the Port Authority, had ordered the lanes reopened immediately. He fired off an email that strayed sharply from his usual bureaucracy-speak. “I am appalled by the lack of process,” Foye wrote, adding the closures violated federal and state laws.
Foye forwarded the email to Cuomo right-hand man Howard Glaser, then the director of state operations, who was meeting with the governor at the time, according to Cuomo’s schedule.
“Well done,” Glaser wrote back.
The next day, Foye was urgently asking the Port Authority staffer in charge of the George Washington Bridge:
“anything else on Wildstein and Baroni”?
“2nd floor request,” Foye wrote. “Need to know ASAP.”
"Second floor" is Albany speak for the part of the state capitol where Cuomo and his top aides have their offices.
Bill Baroni and David Wildstein were Christie’s two top staffers at the Port Authority and both men were deeply steeped in New Jersey politics.
Wildstein has since pleaded guilty to several felony counts for his role in the lane closures. Baroni faces trial in September for his Bridgegate role.
The week after the lane closures, The Wall Street Journal published the first of its probing articles on the traffic snarl-up, “Bridge Jam’s Cause a Mystery.”
The Port Authority’s official statement, developed by Wildstein and Baroni, was that the agency “has conducted a week of study at the GWB of traffic safety patterns.”
“There Is No Study”
In Trenton, according to statements by Christie and his top aides, no one saw the story or heard about the “study.”
But at the Port Authority, Vice Chairman Scott Rechler, a Cuomo appointee, and his chief of staff David Garten were emailing each other that "there is no study." By Friday, Sept. 20, Foye was speaking with Glaser, Cuomo's top aide. Two days later, Rechler vowed to call Glaser himself, “to make sure we are all aligned in our press communications.”
Glaser did not return multiple calls from WNYC in the last week of June; when we called him last November about some of the emails cited in this story, he hung up the phone.
In early October 2013, The Wall Street Journal published a second story, this time containing the full text of Foye's Sept. 13 email reversing the closures.
It wasn’t until the publication of this second story, said Christie and his top aides, that the governor of New Jersey was even aware there was an issue surrounding lane closures on the George Washington Bridge. According to a report prepared by Christie’s legal team, a top Christie aide called Baroni, who said it was a “traffic study.”
In Trenton, according to what Christie and his top aides have repeatedly said, that stopped the inquiries.
Not so on the New York side. According to the newly-disclosed emails, Garten then asked Rechler if, based on the Port Authority vice chairman's “conversations” with Glaser, Garten should meet with Baroni to follow up “on how they want to get out of Fort Lee and what role we can play.”
In Albany, throughout October and November 2013, the emails show that Glaser was kept apprised of every major development: calls from New Jersey legislators, press inquiries, Baroni’s testimony before the New Jersey Assembly transportation committee.
"Can u send baroni," Glaser wrote to Foye, when he learned of the call to testify.
In Trenton, according to Christie’s legal team, Baroni’s testimony was barely noticed by Christie’s top two government aides. According to summaries prepared by Christie’s legal team, led by Randy Mastro, Christie counsel Charles McKenna’s “first recollection of talking to someone about the lane realignment as a traffic study was when he talked to Baroni shortly before Baroni testified.”
Christie’s chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd “did not have time to listen to Baroni’s testimony.”
That testimony, according to the federal indictment against Baroni in 2015, was “false and misleading.”
“Gov Just Called ... We Are All On The Same Page.”
On the New York side, by contrast, Cuomo’s top aide was kept in the loop on Baroni’s testimony from the day the Assembly invited Baroni to testify. “Pat has a call in to the 2nd floor,” Garten wrote.
There was even more intense interest in Foye’s upcoming testimony and what he would say about it after the Port Authority board meeting the week before.
“Have you talked to Pat on his statement regarding Fort Lee?” Garten asked Rechler shortly before the board meeting.
“Yes,” Rechler replied. “Gov just called, but I figured I will call him after the meeting in case Pat does anything different.”
Pat did not do something different.
Foye's remarks at that board meeting were terse. Following the meeting, he told reporters, “I will be appearing before the New Jersey Assembly committee on Monday. I stand by my email and will not be making any further comments or taking questions on the subject.” Rechler dutifully called Cuomo to report back.
The next day, Garten referred to that conversation in yet another email:
“I spoke with Pat and Lisa. We’re all on the same page for Monday. Lisa said Howard and Larry told Pat the same thing the governor told you.”
(Lisa refers to then-Port Authority press secretary, Lisa McSpadden, and Larry is Larry Schwartz, a top Cuomo aide at the time.)
Rechler, who will leave the Port Authority board in the fall, says he couldn’t recall the specific conversations. But in general, he said, “we were not trying to fan any political flames or incite leverage. We were trying to make sure that the Port Authority continued to function and let the legal process take its course."
Meanwhile, the same day Cuomo, Rechler, Glase, and Foye were discussing Foye's testimony, officials on both sides of the Hudson were moving to make Wildstein take the blame.
On the New Jersey side, McKenna, Christie’s top legal advisor, told Christie’s legal team that “at the Governor’s instruction,” he met with Wildstein and secured his resignation. Christie himself edited the press statement, adding a clause that thanked Wildstein “for his service to the people of New Jersey and the region.” It is one of only two emails to have emerged that were written by Christie about Bridgegate.
Wildstein resigned on a Friday afternoon. In New York that weekend, emails sailed back and forth from the Port Authority to the Second Floor and back. On Sunday night, Howard Glaser signed off on the final opening statement. In his testimony, Foye laid all the blame at Wildstein’s feet. Wildstein "made the decision," Foye testified, itemizing the chaos, traffic snarls, confusion and life-threatening tie-ups of emergency vehicles that ensued.
And since Wildstein had already resigned, that might have been the end of it, to the satisfaction of governors on both sides of the Hudson. Both governors had an interest in averting a scandal, and claiming the Port Authority’s multi-billion dollar spoils.
But Foye’s testimony in a day of hearings in Trenton riled up New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who threatened to subpoena more documents. During those hearings, Christie and a top aide texted each other 12 times.
The content of the texts is unknown. Both Christie and the aide deleted them. Christie told reporters they were "of no moment or no import."
Christie, Cuomo, and the Secret Email Account
But according to The Wall Street Journal, Christie was involved in other communications about the lane closures.
In the days after Foye’s testimony, the newspaper reported, Christie called Cuomo to complain that Foye “was pressing too hard to get to the bottom of why the number of toll lanes onto the bridge from Fort Lee, NJ, was cut from three to one.” The Journal attributed its story to “a person familiar with the matter."
When the story was published, Christie was meeting with O’Dowd at the governor’s mansion, Drumthwacket, according to O'Dowd.
Cuomo was on the radio, telling WCNY’s Susan Arbetter that he only knew “basically what has been in the newspaper.” Then according to Cuomo’s schedule, he met with Glaser.
Right around this time, Glaser texted O’Dowd: “Please call me. Time sensitive press inquiry.”
O’Dowd texted back: “with the Governor now.”
According to sworn testimony that O'Dowd gave before the New Jersey legislature, Christie soon called Cuomo to discuss the story and O’Dowd called Glaser.
By the next day, the two governors had their stories aligned.
Christie called the Journal story “categorically wrong.” He added, “I did not have that conversation with Gov. Cuomo in any way shape or form and he did not have that conversation with me.”
Through a spokesman, Cuomo backed that up. “Gov. Cuomo said that Gov. Christie’s statements are correct,” the spokesman, Matthew Wing, said in an interview with The New York Daily News.
In the second of the two Christie Bridgegate emails to surface, from the private email account of “Chris and Mary Pat Christie,” Christie forwarded the Daily News story to the chairman of the Port Authority David Samson with a note, “per our earlier conversation.”
“I’m sure it is as Gov. Christie says it is,” Cuomo said the following Monday.
The version of events as told by the two governors might have never been uncovered, if David Wildstein had kept his personal emails secret. But he decided to turn them over to investigators.
One said: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Christie gave a two-hour press conference, blaming two individuals who went rogue. "I was blindsided," Christie said.