POLITICS: PennAve

New documents show no direct link between Chris Christie and traffic jam plot

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Politics,New Jersey,Chris Christie,PennAve,Rebecca Berg,Bridge Scandal

A cache of subpoenaed documents released Friday by the New Jersey legislature does not contain any direct link between Gov. Chris Christie and the politically driven closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge.

The hundreds of pages of emails and text messages did, however, shed new light on months' worth of conversations between officials from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who carried out the closures, and the Christie aides who ordered it.

The most explosive revelations contained in the documents were made public earlier this week by the Bergen Record, including the Aug. 13 email from Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly to David Wildstein, a high-ranking Christie appointee to the Port Authority. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote. "Got it," Wildstein responded. On Sept. 9, the Port Authority closed two of the three access lanes connecting Fort Lee, N.J., to the George Washington Bridge, backing up traffic that jammed Fort Lee streets, slowed emergency response vehicles and delayed children on their way to the first day of school.

The messages exchanged by Christie aides using personal email accounts set off a political firestorm Wednesday that threatened to engulf the Republican governor, a rising political star who was just getting set to open a second term and who is already being talked about as a potential 2016 presidential candidate.

In an exhaustive, nearly two-hour Capitol news conference Thursday, Christie repeatedly apologized for the incident even as he denied knowing anything about the plotting by his close aides to shut down the access to the world's busiest bridge, apparently as political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who didn't endorse Christie's re-election. Christie quickly fired Kelly and Bill Stepien, his campaign manager who now is being forced to give up a consulting contract with the Republican Governors Association, which Christie now leads.

The new documents seem to confirm that Kelly and Wildstein colluded to close the lanes.

On Sept. 6, Wildstein confirmed to Kelly, “We are ready to do this,” and asked that someone in the governor’s office call the mayor of Springfield with news that a traffic study had been approved.

“Yes,” Kelly responded. “I will let you know.”

But the documents offer no proof that Stepien was actually a party to the scheme. Indeed, communications between the New Jersey officials at the time of the closing were mainly between Kelly and Wildstein, both of whom were clearly pleased by the resulting gridlock.

Nevertheless, scores of emails were exchanged after the closures among Wildstein, Kelly, Stepien and Michael Drewniak, Christie’s press secretary, as questions about the sketchy traffic study began to emerge in the press. Many of the emails mocked the press coverage of the scandal.

The documents also contain a few references to in-person meetings among the Port Authority officials and Christie’s aides.

On Oct. 2, Wildstein told Stepien that he’d be with Port Authority Executive Director Bill Baroni at the New Jersey statehouse that afternoon, and that they would meet with Drewniak and Kelly while there.

“I feel terrible that I’m causing you so much stress this close to November,” Wildstein said, referring to Christie’s ongoing bid for re-election.

The exchange of messages after that grew more tense.

“Need to talk to you soon, in person,” Wildstein wrote to Drewniak on Dec. 3, “once you get caught up and have some time.”

“Sounds a little ominous,” Drewniak replied. “Okay.”

They arranged to meet for dinner in New Brunswick, N.J., on Dec. 4.

“Thanks again for all your sound advice last night,” Wildstein wrote to Drewniak the next morning, adding, “I always appreciate your friendship.”

“Same to you, David,” Drewniak replied, “and thanks for a great dinner.”

The next day, Dec. 6, Wildstein resigned from the Port Authority.

Drewniak and Wildstein worked with Drewniak to formulate responses Drewniak could give reporters calling about the closings and in announcing Wildstein's resignation. Drewniak, one of the only aides involved who hasn't been fired, appeared to be trying to skirt supervision from Christie’s communications director, Maria Comella, and his counsel, Charles McKenna.

“I need to know what’s going on as far as timing and Charlie (McKenna)’s itchiness,” Drewniak wrote to Wildstein on Dec. 6, along with a revised statement praising Wildstein’s work. “I’m trying to balance interests here and the fact that Maria (Comella) and Charlie (McKenna) gave approval to the earlier one. I don’t intend to bring it back to them, so I can’t go much further.”

In another email that day, Drewniak specified, “(no Maria or Charlie),” indicating they hadn’t seen his final draft.

The new documents leave a host of questions unanswered — like a definitive determination of why the lanes were closed in the first place and just how widespread the knowledge of the closing plan was among Christie's aides.

There is also one hint in the documents that Kelly and Wildstein tried to set up a meeting between Christie and Port Authority Chairman David Samson about a month before the lanes were closed, although the purpose of the meeting isn't reported. It's also not clear whether the meeting ever took place.

The state legislature and the Park Authority are expected to continue their separate probes of the lane closings. The Democratically led legislative committee is weighing whether to subpoena Kelly to fill in blanks in the story.

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