On Monday, the New Jersey state legislative committee investigating Bridgegate submitted an interim report.
Anyone expecting a final answer to the question of what did he know and when did he know it – or to be more specific, how much did Governor Chris Christie know about the closure of the three local lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, creating potentially lethal havoc in Fort Lee, and when did he learn that his aides had been responsible for it – would be disappointed.
Still, there are nuggets there about the scandal, lying ready for gleaning.
This is very much an interim report, Loretta Weinberg stressed. Ms. Weinberg, a Democrat, is the state Senate’s majority leader. She lives in Teaneck, and Fort Lee is in her district.
“The report is a chronological listing of all the documents, testimony, and results of the subpoenas gathered over the last few months,” she said. It is interim because the four people whose actions are key to the investigation – Mr. Christie’s one-time two top appointees to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, his former campaign manager, and his now-fired deputy chief of staff – would have to be given immunity if they were to testify to the commission. But the U.S. attorney’s office in Newark still is at work on its own investigation. “Any clear-thinking person – and that includes us – would choose not to give them immunity yet,” Ms. Weinberg said. “So we haven’t had the opportunity to talk directly with those folks.”
That chance may come fairly soon. NBC News is reporting that indictments may be handed down, perhaps in January.
The report does not show that the governor knew about the lane-closing project. “What it does show is that at the uppermost levels of the governor’s office, people were directly involved,” Ms. Weinberg said. Although that is not new, the extent of their involvement is laid out in great detail. “Anybody reading the report also will come away with the fact that there was a concerted effort at a cover-up,” she added.
She talked about David Wildstein, whom Mr. Christie had appointed the director of the Port Authority’s interstate capital projects and later fired. Mr. Christie and Mr. Wildstein were in Livingston High School together, but after Bridgegate broke, Mr. Christie downplayed any possible friendship between the two. In fact, he said, they didn’t “travel in the same circles in high school.” He was “class president and an athlete.” Mr. Wildstein, on the other hand, “was publicly accused by his high school social studies teacher of deceptive behavior.”
“Mr. Wildstein claims that he told the governor about the ongoing traffic situation on September 11, roughly halfway through it,” Ms. Weinberg said. “We can’t ascertain whether or not that is true, because the governor says he doesn’t recall such a conversation, and we can’t interview David Wildstein” because of the ongoing U.S. attorney’s investigation. But there is still a shoe – or perhaps a hobnailed boot – waiting to drop.
There is much in the report about the traffic study that was purported to be the reason for the traffic jam. Some of the details surrounding that fictitious study make far more sense – or perhaps far less sense – to people who take the George Washington Bridge from eastern Bergen or northeastern Hudson counties than they do to anyone else, and those details are rehashed in the report. “It was just a little over a year ago that Bill Baroni,” then the Port Authority’s deputy executive director, “testified to the assembly transportation committee with this weird story.
“He said that they looked at the addresses of EZ Pass holders in Fort Lee. There are about 4,000 of them. They came to the conclusion that only about 4,000 people – a very small percentage of Bergen County – were able to use three lanes of the bridge.” Those are the easternmost of the 12 lanes on the bridge’s upper level; they are more easily accessible to local traffic than from the major highways that carry most riders to the bridge.
“It was the Monday after Thanksgiving last year,” Ms. Weinberg said. “I always spend Thanksgiving in California with my kids. I was there, my grandchildren had gone off to school, and I was listening to Bill Baroni testify on my iPad. I was wondering to myself, what was he talking about?
“While he was still testifying, I called Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, and said, ‘Are there any roads that only residents of Fort Lee can use?’ And he said to me, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I said, ‘I think you should listen to this testimony.'”
During another hearing, when Pat Foy, the Port Authority’s executive director, testified about the bridge situation, Regina Egea, who was then Mr. Christie’s liaison to the Port Authority and since has become his chief of staff, texted the governor at least 10 times, Ms. Weinberg added. “Those texts all have been deleted. “We don’t know what they said,” Ms. Weinberg said. “But it is difficult to believe that they were discussing something unrelated to what was going on.”
Musing on the complicated stories devised to explain the traffic study, because “how could there be a traffic study when there was nothing to study?” Ms. Weinberg said that it brought to mind “the old adage that the cover-up can be worse than the act itself.” The report shows Mr. Sokolich trying, with higher and higher degrees of desperation, to get in touch with Mr. Baroni, with the governor’s office, with other officials at the Port Authority. “They were getting emails saying that this is a tragedy waiting to happen.
“This report backs up the picture of people at the highest level of the administration and Port Authority acting with impunity and then trying to cover it up.
“There is no doubt that it was done for political retribution of some kind,” she continued. Gov. Christie wanted to win his re-election campaign in a landslide; that would help him as he moved toward his next goal, the Republican presidential nomination. To that end, Ms. Weinberg said, some of his team “was giving out some remnants of steel from the World Trade Center. Even that. That was the atmosphere that led to this.”
Mr. Christie’s operatives had been wooing Mr. Sokolich, a Democrat; the morning after he made it clear that he would not endorse Mr. Christie, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, sent out the infamous “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” That was in late August; the lanes were closed in September. “It was September 9, the first Monday after Labor Day, the first day of school, the week of Rosh Hashanah, and the week of 9/11,” Ms. Weinberg said. “It is almost as if they purposely wanted to make it as difficult for people as they could.”
At first, she said, Mr. Sokolich did not know why the lanes were closed, according to the phone calls and messages. “The first notion came through when a Port Authority policeman told an irate motorist to call the mayor; it’s because of something he did.” Mr. Sokolich’s reaction, she said, was, “I’m not important enough.” But “as the people he had always been in contact with at the Port Authority ignored him, he started to think that maybe it was real. He started to send emails asking, ‘Who is mad at me? Why are you mad at me?’ And because they wouldn’t pick up the phone, he called one of his contacts at the Port Authority from another phone, so they wouldn’t recognize the number.”
That call got answered; later, the man who answered it was questioned by his supervisors for having picked up the phone.
“My first reaction, when I got involved a week later, was that this was so bizarre, I couldn’t believe it,” Ms. Weinberg said. “I couldn’t believe that this is how you would get back at the mayor.”
“The minority” – the Republicans – “can say that this is a witch hunt, that they weren’t consulted, but we took documents, we took testimony, and the committee’s lawyer wrote this report.”
Ms. Weinberg referred to the Gibson Dunn Report, a publicly financed, privately conducted, $6.5 million investigation by the law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, led by Randy Mastro. That report pointed at Mr. Wildstein, Mr. Baroni, and Ms. Kelly as responsible for Bridgegate, she said. “It said basically that Bill Baroni was washed up and tired, and he wasn’t going to be reappointed in the governor’s campaign; David Wildstein was a cuckoo guy, bringing in a hundred crazy ideas a day, and Bridget Kelly was a hysterical woman.
“But who appointed these three crazy people? If his own report is talking about the governor’s two highest employees at the Port Authority and his deputy chief of staff – why were they there?”
There is a parallel to Bridgegate, she said, and it is the obvious one – the Ur-gate itself, Watergate. “People said then that this was the stupidest thing they had ever heard of,” she said. “Having third-rate burglars breaking in – that was nuts. And this is pretty nuts too.”