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Opinion: Bridgegate -- the Petty, Political Payback Scheme That Will Not Die

The penny-rate scandal has reached deep into the State House and the governor’s office, but has yet to touch Christie directly

carl golden
Carl Golden

What began more than two years ago as an amateurish plot hatched by a few politically inexperienced individuals full of themselves and eager to exercise their newfound power has become a swamp of scandal, investigations, indictments, and instances of abuse of power, reaching well beyond what its original plotters foresaw, careening off in several directions and swallowing up major figures, both public and private.

Given the media compulsion to attach the suffix “gate” as convenient shorthand to describe all manner of misbehavior, great or small, it was inevitable the episode that began with the closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee in September of 2013 would enter New Jersey political history and be forever branded “Bridgegate.”

It is nothing short of astounding that in the two years since the petty, political payback scheme was set in motion, it has spread amoeba-like and resulted in the following:

  • Federal indictment of a deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, in Gov. Chris Christie’s office;

  • Federal indictment of the deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Bill Baroni, a Christie appointee;

  • Federal indictment and a guilty plea from the director of capital projects at the authority, David Wildstein, who was hired at the behest of the Christie administration;

  • The resignation of the chairman of the authority, David Samson, another Christie appointee

  • The firing of a top political adviser to the governor, Bill Stepien; and

  • The resignation of the chief executive officer of United Airlines, Fred Smisek, along with two of his top staff assistants.

It’s the Chaos Theory at work; something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world.

The lane closings and the cover story that it was an authority-sanctioned traffic study was the flutter of the wings leading to the typhoon that engulfed the government figures and business executives. And the typhoon has not yet blown back out harmlessly to sea.

It’s touched former State Commissioner of Transportation Jamie Fox whose work as a lobbyist for United Airlines has come under scrutiny and could have an impact on Christie’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Just how serious an impact is a matter of ongoing conjecture.

The investigations of the lane closures by a special legislative committee and later by the office of the United States Attorney ultimately turned to the operations of the Port Authority and on the relationship between the authority chairman and United Airlines, the principal carrier in operation at Newark Liberty Airport.

More specifically, investigators are examining the circumstances surrounding United adding flights from Newark to Columbia, SC, near a vacation home owned by Samson, while it had matters pending before the authority. The flights were usually half full, never turned a profit, and were discontinued 24 hours after Samson resigned from the authority.

Fox was drawn into the controversy when it was revealed that he, as the lobbyist for the airline, was instrumental in bringing the chairman and the CEO of United together to discuss matters of mutual interest.

The bridge access-lane diversions -- the act that started it all -- produced a traffic jam of epic proportions for four days at the bridge, one of the busiest crossings in the world, and was initially laughingly dismissed and ridiculed by the governor himself.

When the traffic study cover story collapsed with the discovery that the governor’s deputy chief of staff was directly involved, along with the two Port Authority staffers, it was revealed that the plot was a remarkably ill-conceived attempt to punish and embarrass the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for his refusal to endorse Christie’s reelection.

The incident immediately drew renewed criticism of Christie’s political style of confrontation, crude putdowns of those who questioned his actions, and retaliation toward anyone who resisted his agenda.

Christie, said his critics, had created a culture in his administration in which his staff reflected his style and felt it acceptable -- if not desirable -- to threaten opponents with retribution for refusing to accede to their demands.

There existed a “we can do whatever we want and justify whatever we do” environment, one which encouraged individuals unaccustomed to wielding the power and authority of a chief executive’s office to embark on missions and undertake actions without regard for repercussions. The arrogance of power was alluring and they succumbed to it.

Christie has not been implicated in the lane closure scheme or involved in whatever agreements were struck between the Port Authority and United Airlines. He’s said on several occasions that the U. S. Attorney’s investigation had cleared him -- something of an overstatement since the probe is ongoing.

The inevitable parallels have been drawn between Watergate, derided by the Nixon administration as a third rate burglary, and Bridgegate, dismissed by the Christie administration as a routine and unremarkable traffic study. The denouement of the former is a matter of history, while the conclusion of the latter remains to be seen.

When the trial of Baroni and Kelly was postponed from November to next March, ostensibly to allow more time for their attorneys to prepare motions, sort through a massive amount of documents, and settle on a defense strategy, it produced rampant speculation that they and others would use the delay to discuss possible plea deals with the U. S. attorney. Seeking a lighter sentence in return for cooperating with investigators and disclosing additional information has become the norm in similar cases.

While the scandal has reached the Statehouse steps, it has stopped short of the governor’s desk. The flutter of the butterfly’s wing has, for now at least, been quieted, but the butterfly has not fluttered off.

Carl Golden served as press secretary for Republican Gov. Thomas Kean for eight years and as communications director for Republican Gov. Christie Whitman for three years. He is currently a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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