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Anatomy of a Scandal: Why 'Bridgegate' Matters

Buttressing the argument that Sokolich was being punished for some political reason was the mayor’s report that Port Authority Police Department officers had told motorists that he was to blame for the closings. The Port Authority police union had already endorsed Christie for reelection because he interceded on their behalf when New York was pushing to have New York City police handle security at the new Freedom Tower being built on the World Trade Center site, sources said.

For four days, Baroni repeatedly refused to respond to Sokolich’s calls and emails, while Kelly and Wildstein gleefully exchanged emails about the closures with each other and with others whose names were blacked out on the subpoenaed documents. When one anonymous correspondent asked “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” Wildstein responded “No.” Asked if he felt sorry for the children stuck in traffic on school buses during the first week of school, Wildstein responded, “they are the children of Buono voters.”

On September 12, the fourth day of the lane closures, Wildstein exchanged emails with Kelly and Drewniak, the governor’s chief spokesman and a friend of Wildstein, on a two-sentence press statement saying the Port Authority is “reviewing traffic safety patterns at the George Washington Bridge” in response to inquiries from The Record’s traffic columnist.

The Beginning of the Coverup

To Wisniewski, who plans to subpoena Drewniak, that press statement marks the beginning of the coverup, and the fact that it went through the New Jersey governor’s office, rather than the Port Authority’s large highly-paid public relations staff, is a clear indication that the lane closures were a political issue that had to be handled by the Christie team with the governor less than two months away from reelection.

Kelly, who was a key contact for campaign manager Stepien in the governor’s office, frequently accompanied Christie in his gubernatorial travels, and she was with Christie at the scene of the Seaside Heights boardwalk fire that afternoon. She was photographed intently studying text on her cell phone while standing next to the governor, prompting Wisniewski to ask, “This senior aide, who was with him that day, who sent the order, never once communicated with him? It's unbelievable.”

The following morning, Foye countermanded Wildstein -- and presumably Baroni -- in ordering the lanes reopened, asserting that the closures violated normal protocol and endangered the public safety. Baroni forwarded Foye’s email without explanation to Regina Egea, then director of the governor’s Authorities Unit and since promoted to Chief of Staff, traditionally the second-most powerful position in the administration after the governor.

What Egea thought of the email and whether she called Baroni, discussed the issue with higher-ups like Chief of Staff Kevin O’Dowd or Kelly, or sent a memo up the chain of command is not known, but she can expect a subpoena as part of the Wisniewski probe. Two Christie administration appointees who did jump in were Baroni and Samson. Baroni hurriedly emailed Foye saying there can be “no public discourse” on the issue, and Wildstein emailed Kelly to tell her of Foye’s order, saying “we are appropriately going nuts. Samson helping us to retaliate.”

The following Tuesday, Samson angrily complained to Port Authority Vice Chairman Scott Rechler, a Cuomo appointee, that he believed that Foye had leaked his memo to a Wall Street Journal reporter. Christie said Thursday he spoke to Samson and was convinced the former attorney-general had done nothing wrong, but it is clear that Samson regarded the lane closures as a damaging story to be suppressed, rather than as a cause for concern.

That same day, on September 17, Drewniak declined to respond to questions about the Port Authority, whose press statement he had approved five days earlier, explaining that “it’s an independent agency” and referring the reporter to a Port Authority spokesman who had been instructed then and would be instructed for the next two months not to respond to questions about Bridgegate.

Meanwhile that day, Wildstein was in contact with Stepien, Christie’s campaign manager, who said the situation was “fine” and called Sokolich an “idiot.” Wildstein emailed back, “I had empty boxes ready to take to work today, just in case,” a clear indication that Wildstein knew his action were cause for firing -- and furthermore, Stepien knew it too.

The documents released Friday show that Drewniak corresponded with Communications Director Maria Comella on the potential damage from Bridgegate stories, and that Charles McKenna, then Christie’s chief counsel, paid close attention to Baroni’s testimony at an Assembly Transportation Committee hearing in late November and said that Baroni did “great.”

Christie, who even last week still clung to the notion that a legitimate traffic study might have been conducted, indicated that neither Stepien nor Samson nor Comella nor McKenna nor any other administration official had notified him of any concerns about the Bridgegate scandal prior to the publication of the explosive emails last week.

That included Drewniak, who had dinner with Wildstein and offered him advice shortly before his resignation in December; the governor’s office announced Friday that he would continue as Christie's press secretary.

“I don't think so it's possible for all of those people to be involved and know and for the governor to have absolutely no communication,” Wisniewski asserted on Face the Nation yesterday.

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