The mystery of who closed two lanes onto the George Washington Bridge — turning the borough of Fort Lee, N.J., into a parking lot for four days in September — exploded into a full-bore political scandal for Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday, when emails and texts revealed that a top aide had ordered the closings to punish the town’s mayor after he did not endorse the governor for re-election.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Christie, emailed David Wildstein, a high-school friend of the governor who worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge.
Later texts mocked concerns that school buses filled with students were stuck in gridlock: “They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein wrote, referring to Christie’s opponent Barbara Buono.
The emails are striking in their political maneuvering, showing Christie aides gleeful about the chaos that resulted, including emergency vehicles delayed in responding to three people with heart problems and a missing toddler, as well as commuters fuming. One of the governor’s associates refers to the mayor of Fort Lee as “this little Serbian,” and Kelly exchanges messages about the plan while she is in line to pay her respects at a wake. The mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, at whom the Serbian barb was aimed, is of Croatian descent.
Christie denied knowledge of the emails and said his staff was to blame. The growing scandal threatens to tarnish him as he assumes a larger position on the national stage, as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and as an all-but-certain candidate for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016.
While the emails do not establish that the governor called for the lane closings, they show that his staff was intimately involved, contrary to Christie’s repeated avowals that no one in his office or campaign knew about them.
The disclosure of the emails will probably intensify an investigation into the lane closing by the Port Authority inspector general’s office, which opened a formal inquiry in December.
Late Wednesday, Christie issued a statement saying he had seen the exchanges “for the first time” and casting blame on his staff for “unacceptable” behavior.
“I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge,” Christie’s statement said.
“One thing is clear: This type of behavior is unacceptable, and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better … people will be held responsible for their actions.”
His office did not respond to follow-up inquiries about whether this meant Kelly, or anyone else, had been fired. Wildstein, along with Bill Baroni, Christie’s top appointed staff member at the Port Authority, resigned in December after port officials testified in a legislative hearing that the men had violated protocols and had sought to hide their plans for the lane closings from Fort Lee officials, the police and other Port Authority officials.
The documents were obtained by The New York Times and other news outlets Wednesday. They are heavily redacted by Wildstein, who turned them over under a subpoena from Democratic legislators investigating the lane closing, making it hard to determine in some cases who is speaking.
But they indicate Christie’s employees, appointees at the Port Authority, and his campaign office were all involved in discussing the growing scandal and how to react to it as it was unfolding.
When reporters began calling to ask about the lane closings, Wildstein and Kelly worked with Michael Drewniak, the governor’s chief spokesman, to fashion a statement saying that the port was “reviewing traffic safety patterns” at the bridge and had been “in contact with Fort Lee police throughout this transition.”
In fact, bridge officials testified in December that Baroni and Wildstein instructed them not to tell the Fort Lee police, or anyone else, about the lane closings before they happened. They also testified that they did not believe there had been any traffic study; no study was produced and any study of traffic patterns could have been done using computer models of data routinely collected at the bridge.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who has been leading legislative hearings on the closings, said Christie’s statement Wednesday suffered from a “credibility gap.” He was skeptical, he said, that Kelly could sit “three chairs or four chairs away from the governor’s office” and be directing such an operation without his knowledge.
Christie was cruising to re-election over Buono in the fall, but he and his campaign were leaning on Democratic officials to endorse him so he could pitch himself to national Republicans as the presidential nominee who could attract bipartisan support. More than 50 local Democrats endorsed Christie, but Sokolich was among those who did not.