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Anatomy of a Scandal: Why 'Bridgegate' Matters

When the 88-year-old Lautenberg, the leading critic of Christie’s ARC Tunnel cancellation, convened a hearing of his Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Surface Transportation in Washington in April 2012 to get information on the toll hikes, Baroni used a standard Christie tactic. He launched an ad hominem attack on Lautenberg’s “moral standing” to conduct a hearing because he had used a standard perk to cross Port Authority bridges and tunnels for free while serving as a Port Authority commissioner 30 years before. Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman, repeated the personal attacks on Lautenberg later in the day to reporters.

Efforts by lawmakers and reporters to get information on the ARC tunnel cancellation and the Port Authority toll hikes were repeatedly squelched at Baroni’s directive in a bistate agency where Baroni exercised power independent of the New York-appointed executive director, who was technically his boss, on matters of interest to New Jersey’s governor -- a situation that the General Accounting Office would later characterize as dysfunctional.

Ironically, it was this refusal to produce documents on the 2011 toll-hike decision that led the Assembly to give subpoena powers to the Assembly Transportation Committee. Wisniewski’s panel used those subpoena powers last fall to compel Port Authority officials to testify on the Bridgegate scandal and to obtain the incriminating documents that forced the resignations of Wildstein and Baroni and the firings of Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, and Stepien as Christie’s chief political adviser.

The Widening Web

Baroni and Wildstein were the two Christie administration officials at the core of the Bridgegate scandal until last Wednesday, when New Jersey Spotlight and other news organizations obtained documents subpoenaed by Wisniewski’s committee that disclosed Christie’s governor’s office was deeply involved in the lane closures and their coverup -- contrary to Christie’s insistence as late as a December 19 press conference that his administration had no involvement.

The Wednesday document excerpts and thousands of pages of documents posted by the committee Friday told a different story.

An August 13 email from Kelly to Wildstein instructed, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” to which Wildstein responded “Got it.”

Kelly had replaced Stepien, her close friend and political mentor, as deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, when Stepien moved to the Christie campaign to reprise his 2009 role as campaign manager. Christie said during his marathon Thursday apology that he fired Kelly for lying to him when he had asked his entire senior staff in mid-December if they were involved in the lane closures.

However, Wisniewski questioned not only how Wildstein would have known what Kelly meant if there had not been earlier conversations, but also why Wildstein had included an email showing a meeting between Christie and Samson, his appointee as Port Authority chairman, that took place a few days before the Kelly email when the subpoena was strictly limited to documents pertaining to Bridgegate.

Ordering the GWB Lane Closure

It was Wildstein, whose post as director of interstate capital projects gave him no jurisdiction over traffic studies, who ordered high-ranking Port Authority officials to close all but one lane leading from Fort Lee into the George Washington Bridge toll booths, creating hours of backups for tens of thousands of commuters and life-threatening delays for police and emergency personnel.

And it was Wildstein who directed Port Authority officials not to tell Foye or the Fort Lee mayor or police about the lane closures. Wildstein personally went to the bridge on the morning of September 9 to be able to report back to Kelly and others on the havoc their handiwork had created.

Democrats have assumed for months that the George Washington Bridge lane closures were retaliation against Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, presumably for refusing to endorse Christie -- a theory supported by Sokolich’s emails to Baroni and other Port Authority officials asking whom he had angered and whether he was being punished.

In his Thursday press conference, Christie himself used the phrase “running up the score” to refer to his campaign’s quest to pile up as many endorsements as it could in order to defeat Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) by as large a margin as possible, presumably to bolster Christie’s presidential candidacy.

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