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Bridgegate’s 30 Pivotal Hours: How Kevin O’Dowd Missed The Signs

Bridgegate was a continuing public relations nightmare -- during his 11 a.m. Drumthwacket meeting that day, O’Dowd would receive a text from a top adviser to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo warning him that the Wall Street Journal was carrying a story saying that Christie had called Cuomo to ask him to tell Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, a Cuomo appointee, to stop complaining publicly about the lane closures.

O’Dowd stopped by the Statehouse to see if Kelly was in on his way to Newark. She wasn’t, but she texted him on his cell phone while he was in the car, and he called her. After chatting about Kelly’s daughter’s surgery that day, O’Dowd’s recent trip to Florida and the complications of setting up a meeting requested by an assemblyman, O’Dowd pivoted to the reason for his call.

“I asked, ‘Did you have anything to do with the lane closings?” O’Dowd recalled. “She responded, ‘Absolutely not, why are you asking?’ I said I was at Drumthwacket that day, and the governor asked me to ask. ‘Does he think he did?’ she asked.”

O’Dowd said he asked Kelly to check her emails and texts to see if anyone had sent her anything on the lane closures, but he believed her. “Bridget Kelly is someone that I had worked with and known for four years and someone who I thought very highly of: hardworking, energetic, loyal -- someone I believed and trusted.”

The next stop was the meeting with McKenna and Baroni. “Bill Baroni knew he was not going to stay on as deputy executive director,” O’Dowd said. “He may not have known who his replacement would be, we let him know that as well.” It was O’Dowd who had personally reached out to see if Gramiccioni was interested the month before. “But he did not know his last day was to be the next day,” O’Dowd recalled.

O’Dowd said Christie and Port Authority Chairman David Samson had decided months earlier that Baroni, who had served for four years, would not be retained. He was “burned out” in a job that people usually held for two years, and relations between the New York and New Jersey factions at the bistate agency were exceptionally rocky. But there was no question, O’Dowd said, that his departure – like Wildstein’s -- was being “accelerated” because of the mishandling of the Bridgegate lane closures.

Baroni’s main concern was how he could arrange his severance and benefits in just one day, and whether he would get indemnification against any lawsuits or investigations arising out of Bridgegate. O’Dowd expressed sympathy and told him to call Michael DuHaime, Christie’s campaign strategist, who had a job for him. There was no “animus” toward Baroni, O’Dowd assured him; to this day, Christie -- who speaks scathingly of Wildstein and Kelly -- speaks respectfully of Baroni.

Baroni became emotional. “Bill Baroni looked at Charlie McKenna and me and said, ‘I am a constitutional law professor, I am a former state senator, and everything I said before the (Assembly Transportation) committee was true: There was a traffic study.”

Under questioning from Wisniewski, O’Dowd acknowledged he did not ask Baroni for a copy of the study, nor did he ask any questions about who authorized the traffic study or the lane closures, or whether anyone in the governor’s office knew anything about it.

The following morning, when O’Dowd went into the Statehouse, Gramiccioni waved him into her office. “She Indicated to me she had communicated with Baroni , and Baroni had indicated to her there was some document showing that Bridget Kelly knew about lane closures,” O’Dowd said. “It did surprise me because I had just met with Bill Baroni the day before and he had not said anything.” Once again, under questioning from Wisniewski, O’Dowd acknowledged that he never called Baroni to find out what he knew. “If I understood Gramiccioni correctly, Bill Baroni had not seen the document,” he said. “I assume Deb passed along to me what she knew and I was going to approach Bridget Kelly.”

That morning, Christie held an emotional meeting with his senior staff, warned that as a potential presidential candidate he was going to be under intense scrutiny from the press, and said the Bridgegate scandal or any other misstep would be magnified.

Looking them in the eye one after another, he said he wanted anyone with any knowledge of Bridgegate to tell O’Dowd, McKenna and him within the next two hours before he went out and announced to the Statehouse press corps that no one on his staff had any knowledge of the lane closures.

O’Dowd said he met with Kelly three times in the next hour, once in his office and twice in hers. Kelly produced a printout of a memo written by Renna, who served under her as director of intergovernmental affairs, detailing a 20-minute phone call that staffer Evan Ridley had had with Sokolich on September 12, the fourth day of the lane closures, in which the mayor alleged that the lanes had been closed as political retaliation against him.

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