Bridgegate Fall Guy Was Inside Man
The political operative who helped mastermind the notorious lane closures at the George Washington Bridge -- and is now cooperating with a federal investigation of the Bridgegate scandal -- had more extensive contact with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s inner circle than the governor has acknowledged.
That is the conclusion of a WNYC examination of calendars maintained by David Wildstein during his four years at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, along with a review of more than 1,000 photographs provided by the Port Authority and thousands of pages of documents released by the governor’s own legal team and the New Jersey Legislature.
Christie has insisted he had little to do with Wildstein, his former $150,000-a-year appointee at the Port Authority with whom he attended Livingston High School in the 1970s.
“I don’t even remember in the last four years even having a meeting in my office with David Wildstein,” Christie said at his marathon two-hour press conference in January 2014, after the legislature released Bridgegate records including the now infamous email to Wildstein declaring, “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Christie told reporters: “I may have, but I don’t remember it.”
But the documents, corroborated by current and former Port Authority and Trenton staffers who requested anonymity because of the ongoing federal investigation, paint a new picture of Wildstein’s role in the Christie Administration. That view chips away at Christie’s and his lawyers’ portrayal of Wildstein as a rogue employee largely isolated from the governor who acted with one staffer in closing lanes and causing epic traffic jams on the roadways of Fort Lee for four morning commutes in September 2013.
The records and interviews indicate that during his tenure at the Port Authority, Wildstein met at least twice with Christie and others in the governor's office, joined Christie at seven public events and had regular meetings with Christie's closest confidantes.
Wildstein’s schedules list seven meetings at the statehouse, but his calendars are sometimes inconsistent with records maintained by the Christie Administration, and WNYC was not able to independently confirm the five other meetings took place.
The digital calendar entries were posted on an obscure section of the Port Authority’s website. Wildstein did not return repeated emails and his attorney, Alan Zegas, would not comment.
The difficulty of corroborating events in the calendars can be shown by examining one entry on a Sunday in November 2013 as the Bridgegate scandal was unfolding. Wildstein listed a 1 p.m. meeting with “CC” —the governor’s initials — at the Black Horse Tavern in Mendham, down the road from the governor’s house and across the street from his family’s church. "There was no meeting with the governor," said Kevin Roberts, a Christie spokesman.
Many governors make their meeting schedules public. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo posts his on the internet. But when WNYC requested Christie’s own meeting schedules under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, the request was denied. WNYC sued to obtain the documents; a judge ruled against the request.
WNYC’s reporting shows extensive contact between Wildstein and Christie’s top staff, notably the people involved with the governor's political career. Wildstein’s schedules – in entries verified by interviews — show almost monthly meetings with Bill Stepien, Christie’s top political aide at the statehouse and the manager of Christie’s two campaigns. Through his attorney, Stepien has said that he had nothing to do with the lane closures. Stepien and Wildstein had been friends since working together on a campaign in 2000.
“I was well aware he was going down to Trenton and briefing Stepien regularly,” said one former official who didn’t want his name used for fear of reprisals. The official said Wildstein spoke of traveling to “Trenton to deal with the politics” of Port Authority decisions.
The calendars also show lunches and dinners with Christie’s top outside strategist, Mike DuHaime of Mercury Public Affairs.
WNYC’s reexamination of Wildstein’s role in the Christie Administration comes as the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey, Paul Fishman, enters the 15th month of his Bridgegate probe. The federal investigation began after the legislature released an email showing a Christie deputy chief of staff telling Wildstein: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” When the email became public, Christie distanced himself from Wildstein.
“I could probably count on one hand the number of conversations I had with David Wildstein since he worked at the Port Authority,” the governor said during a news conference at the statehouse.
Yet official photos released by the Port Authority show Wildstein among an inner circle of agency officials who attended five public events with the governor. Photos show Wildstein speaking with Christie during at least two of them: A June 2013 ceremonial ribbon-cutting for the raising of the Bayonne Bridge and at the World Trade Center memorial ceremony on Sept. 11, 2013, which took place during the lane closures.
Interviews conducted by the governor’s legal team indicate Wildstein told several of Christie’s closest associates that he spoke with the governor about the lane closures at that Sept. 11 ceremony. Christie has said he has no recollection of the conversation and that such a discussion, if it occurred, would have been of “no moment or import,” because traffic jams are common in New Jersey.
Photographs taken that day by a Port Authority photographer show Wildstein laughing, talking and checking his Blackberry while standing next to the governor at several points that morning. The photos show Wildstein and Christie with the governor’s top political appointees at the Port Authority who have since resigned — Chairman David Samson and Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni — along with First Lady Mary Pat Christie.
The calendars indicate that Wildstein also had scheduled face-to-face meetings with the governor at the statehouse in 2011 during an earlier controversy over steep toll hikes secretly devised and quickly approved by the Port Authority. For an April 12, 2011, meeting, the toll hikes were specifically referenced on Wildstein’s calendar, although administration records reviewed by WNYC do not show this meeting occured. In August 2011, according to the calendars and former officials, Wildstein attended a meeting with Christie and his top advisors just two days before the Port Authority announced the toll hike. The administration records show Christie met with Port Authority officials that day, though the people who attended are not named.
In January 2013, according to documents and interviews, Wildstein brought leaders from the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association to the statehouse to deliver the union’s critical, early endorsement to Christie for his reelection campaign that year.
Though Wildstein was not in Christie’s inner circle, he had two friends who were: gubernatorial campaign manager Stepien, who like Wildstein was driven from Christie’s orbit after the Bridgegate scandal broke, and DuHaime, who remains Christie’s chief political strategist.
The records show Stepien and Wildstein would meet regularly, sometimes at the statehouse, sometimes for a meal.
DuHaime and Wildstein had breakfast on Nov. 11, 2013, at Rockin’ Joe’s in Westfield, when the dimensions of the lane closure scandal were beginning to emerge. Wildstein was also in phone and email contact over the years with both DuHaime and Stepien.
But nowhere do the records show a frenzy of calls and texts like those on Dec. 12 and Dec. 13, 2013.
At 3:49 p.m. on Dec. 12, the Assembly transportation committee issued the subpoenas to Wildstein and others that would eventually produce the “traffic problems” email. Phone, text and email records released as part of the legislative investigation show Duhaime and Wildstein connected later that evening, speaking for an hour and a half in a call that ended close to 1 a.m. Duhaime’s next call was from Christie at 7:30 a.m.
At 8 a.m., Wildstein’s calendar notes “WS” and "Montville." WS are Stepien’s initials and Montville is the town where Wildstein lives in a red-brick home set back from the street. Stepien’s lawyer says the two men didn’t meet that day.
At around 11 a.m., Stepien was seen at the statehouse by several Trenton staffers, Christie’s lawyers said. At the time, he was texting and calling DuHaime – 17 calls and texts in all. Stepien texted Duhaime: “He’s not telling you or you cannot connect?”
Stepien asked DuHaime if he could meet “him in person, ASAP.”
DuHaime texted back: “The boss?”
Stepien responded: “No, not the gov.”
Though the texts are not explicit, they suggest Stepien was asking DuHaime to meet face-to-face with Wildstein. In the report from Christie’s lawyers, DuHaime said he was reaching out that morning to Wildstein to confirm Wildstein’s story: that a senior Christie aide had knowledge of the closures. When Wildstein responded “100%,” DuHaime told the governor’s lawyers that he relayed the response to Stepien.
Then the governor stepped to the podium to announce Baroni’s resignation from the Port Authority and to address reporters about the lane closures.
“I’ve made it very clear to everybody on my senior staff that if anyone had any knowledge about this that they needed to come forward to me and tell me about it,” Christie said, “and they’ve all assured me that they don’t.”
This inconsistency is not addressed in the report written by Christie’s lawyers, which blames the lane closures on Wildstein and the author of the “traffic problems” email, Bridget Anne Kelly.
During the next five days, phone records show, Christie was in frequent touch with DuHaime. Duhaime spoke with Wildstein several times as well, right through Dec. 18.
On Dec. 19, Wildstein’s attorneys turned over his documents to legislative investigators. Among them was the email reading: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
When that email became public the following month Christie held a nearly two-hour news conference, telling reporters he had no knowledge of the involvement of his staff before that moment.
“Well, let me tell you everybody, I was blindsided,” Christie said.