TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie’s deputy chief of staff had advance knowledge of a plan to shut down local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September, and was aware that the closures would snarl traffic on Fort Lee streets, according to documents obtained by The Star-Ledger.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” read an email message from the deputy, Bridget Anne Kelly, dated Aug. 13, nearly a month before the Sept. 9-13 closures, which snarled traffic and sparked a scandal that has drawn national attention.
The email was sent to David Wildstein, the former official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who gave the direct order to the bridge manager close the lanes. Wildstein received the 7:34 a.m. email on his personal Gmail account from Kelly’s personal Yahoo account. Wildstein responded, “Got it.”Evidence of advance knowledge of the closures by one of Christie’s close staffers comes despite repeated assertions by the governor that he had nothing to do with the unannounced closures. The governor has also dismissed a legislative investigation into whether the closures were politically motivated as an attempt by Democrats to score their own political points.
The surfacing of the email and other related communications comes on the same day as the scheduled release of communications-related documents related to the closures subpoenaed by an assembly panel looking into the closures.Christie’s office said neither of his spokesmen were available for comment.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), a former state Democratic Committee chairman who chairs the Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee, today said he was not surprised by the new email disclosures.
“I said all along that the order for the lane diversion came from outside the Port Authority,” he said in a telephone interview.
Asked if he believed the email suggested the motive of the closures was indeed political, he responded, “I said all along that the order for the lane diversion came from outside the Port Authority.”
He added that he could “think of no other explanation” that the email was nothing less than a directive by Kelly to Wildstein to go ahead with the closures.
However, Wisnewski said it was too soon to say that Christie himself was aware of plans for the closures in advance.
State Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), a Chrisite critic who called on the Port Authority Inspector General’s office to investigate the closures before that office launched its own probe last month, said the new disclosures were outrageous.
“This goes to the personal integrity of the governor’s office,” said Codey. “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 Assemblyman Scott Rumana (R-Passaic) this week said the Democratic lawmaker leading a legislative investigation into the closures failed to give Republicans enough time to thoroughly vet the documents in advance of a much-anticipated hearing in Trenton on Thursday. Wisniewski dismissed the criticism as politically motivated.
Wildstein, who has been called to testify at the hearing, was one of seven current and former Port Authority officials from whom Wisniewski had subpoenaed correspondence-related documents involving the closures.
According to Wisniewski, some of the correspondence indicated that the idea to redirect two out of three toll lanes normally accessed by a ramp from Fort Lee originated outside the agency, though he has declined to elaborate.
Wildstein was one of two Port Authority officials to resign last month amid the growing lane closure controversy. A week after he stepped down, the resignation of his supervisor at the agency, former Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, was announced by Christie.
Baroni testified voluntarily before the committee on Nov. 25, without being sworn in, that Wildstein ordered the closings to determine whether overall bridge traffic would move more smoothly if one upper-level toll lane, instead of three, was dedicated to traffic from an access ramp in Fort Lee. He also acknowledged that the failure to communicate the closures to other agency officials and to local authorities was a mistake.
However, Democrats suspect the unusual closings were retaliation for the mayor’s failure to support Christie’s re-election. In his first public remarks to reporters on the closures, Christie dismissed any notion that he was involved or that they were politically motivated, joking, “I was working the cones.”
On Dec. 9, Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye told the committee, under oath, that he was never made aware of any traffic study and remained unaware of one at that point. Wildstein resigned three days ahead of Foye’s appearance before the committee, while Baroni’s resignation was announced by Christie four afterward, when he repeated his assertion that he had nothing to do with closures.