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Documents Cast New Light on Christie Bridge Scandal

Friday, 10 Jan 2014 05:48 PM

New documents released on Friday in the spiraling Bridge-gate scandal referenced a meeting between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the Port Authority's chairman a week before traffic lanes were ordered closed on the George Washington Bridge and that police had blamed Fort Lee's mayor for the ensuing four days of massive gridlock.

“Many members of the public have indicated to me that the Port Authority Police Officers are advising commuters in response to their complaints that this recent traffic debacle is the result of a decision that I, as the mayor, recently made,” Mayor Mark Sokolich wrote in a scathing Sept. 12 letter to Bill Baroni, the Port Authority deputy director who was appointed by Christie, CNN reports.

“This decision has wreaked havoc upon our community during the morning rush hour,” Sokolich wrote. “Unquestionably this decision has negatively impacted public safety here in Fort Lee.

“The basis, reason, or genesis of the decision is of no consequence to me," he said in ending the letter. "However, its profound and adverse impact on our community is of paramount importance to me.”

Critics have charged that the gridlock at the toll-booth lanes at Fort Lee were political payback because Sokolich would not back Christie's re-election bid last year.

The Republican governor had counted on Sokolich's support to show bipartisan appeal to enhance his chances for a 2016 run for the White House, political experts have said.

And despite the widening scandal, Christie will campaign in Florida this weekend to raise money for Gov. Rick Scott's re-election bid.

The new revelations were disclosed in the 2,040 pages of new documents released by a New Jersey Assembly committee investigating the closures a day after Christie apologized to Sokolich for the bridge scandal and expressed regret at a news conference in which he said that he knew nothing about the lane closures.

Christie also said that he had fired Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly, who wrote in an email to Port Authority executive David Wildstein in August: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

Wildstein, who resigned last month as director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey because of the scandal, replied: "Got it."

State officials subpoenaed the documents from Wildstein and charged him with contempt on Thursday for repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights in testimony before the panel. He had been appointed to his Port Authority post by Christie.

"I come out here to apologize to the people of New Jersey," Christie said at the two-hour news conference on Thursday. "I apologize to the people of Fort Lee. And I apologize to the State Legislature."

According to CNN, the new documents referenced a meeting between Christie and Port Authority Chairman David Samson a week before Kelly wrote her email.

New Jersey Assembly Deputy Speaker Wisniewski, a Democrat who chairs the committee overseeing the investigation, said that the reference raised many questions.

"Included in these documents is a reference to what appears to be a meeting between Port Authority Chairman David Samson and the governor one week before Bridget Kelly issued the order to cause 'traffic problems' in Fort Lee," Wisniewski said in a statement. "By submitting these documents, Mr. Wildstein is telling us they are related to the lane closures in some way. The question that demands answering is how?"

He also questioned how much top Christie aides knew about the lane closures.

"How much of the full picture was the governor's senior staff given regarding the development of this lane closure project?" Wisniewski asked. "With the tight control this administration maintains, it doesn't stretch the imagination that they were given more information than they let on. When they were preparing spin control, how could they not have been given the whole story?"

In addition, the documents showed that Wildstein forwarded emails about the bridge closings from his Port Authority account to his personal Internet account.

He made the transfers after a staff member told him that a reporter from The Wall Street Journal was asking questions about the lane closures, CNN reports.

Wildstein did the same thing when Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell sent a letter about the bridge logjams.

More broadly, however, the documents showed that authorities were deeply divided over the shutdown, with one warning that it was illegal.

For instance, Patrick Foye, the Port Authority's executive director, lashed out in an email to executives on the fourth day of the shutdown, including Samson, and ordered the lanes reopened.

"I believe this hasty and ill-advised decision violates Federal Law and the laws of both states," Foye said in the email.

"I pray that no life has been lost or trip of a hospital- or hospice-bound patient delayed," said Foye of the traffic jams that delayed ambulances, including one called for a 91-year-old woman who later died at a Fort Lee hospital.

Any implication in the new documents that Christie or his staff knew more about the closures than they have acknowledged could cause the scandal to dog Christie.

"He's not fully in control of this story anymore," said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University. "Because he took such a firm stand yesterday and was emphatic that this was it, any information that shows otherwise will continue the story and force him to put more time on it."

Christie, long cultivated an image as a brash, tough-talking leader willing to buck his party for the good of his constituents, sounded contrite and humbled at the Thursday news conference.

"I am not a bully," he said.

U.S. attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman, whose job Christie held before being elected governor, has asked the FBI to assist in an investigation into the closings.

Christie also faces a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court on Thursday by Rosemarie Arnold, a lawyer charging that area residents suffered financially from being trapped in traffic.

And while in Florida next weekend, Christie will appear at the fund-raisers as head of the Republican Governors Association, the National Journal reports.

He will be headlining events for Governor Scott in Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Orlando.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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In the latest twist in a scandal engulfing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, documents related to the closure of the George Washington Bridge showed on Friday that authorities were deeply divided about the shutdown, with one warning it was illegal.

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