To longtime Christie-watchers, the Bridgegate scandal is the inevitable outgrowth of a governorship built on an outsized cult of personality, unprecedented hardball politics of character assassination and intimidation, and four years of putting the governor’s personal political ambitions ahead of the state’s policy needs and the interests of his own Republican Party.
For Gov. Chris Christie, the biggest problem is not the round-the-clock attacks of Democrats like Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, but the harsh critiques of Republicans like former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, whose campaign Christie worked on during high school, and Rick Merkt, Christie’s former Assembly running mate and a township committeeman in Christie’s hometown of Mendham Township.
One week ago, Christie was the clear frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 and the most powerful governor in New Jersey history, more powerful even than the popular Kean, proving Machiavelli’s axiom that “it is better to be feared than to be loved.”
Today, not only are Christie’s presidential ambitions on life support, but Wisniewski and Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) are questioning whether subpoenaed Bridgegate documents released last week are the first evidence of a coverup that could constitute obstruction of justice and ultimately lead to Christie’s impeachment.
Four top Christie administration officials have resigned or been fired in the past month, and David Wildstein, the Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who directly oversaw the George Washington Bridge lane closures, took the Fifth Amendment more than 30 times in testimony before the Assembly Transportation Committee Thursday.
Christie’s stunning fall from grace has set off a national media feeding frenzy and a 24-hour news cycle scrutiny of Christie’s personality and governance that would not have occurred until he declared for the presidency. Even worse for Christie, the Bridgegate scandal has freed up his critics by undercutting his power to retaliate against his foes without confirming his stereotype as a bully.
That is why Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, the “little Serbian” who was the alleged target of the George Washington Bridge lane closures that led to the resignations or firings of four top Christie aides, finally felt free to speak out publicly on Thursday after four months of refusing interviews.
More damning, however, were the national interviews in the Washington Post and New York, in which Kean openly questioned Christie’s fitness for the White House, asserting that he created a culture in his administration in which “no one will ever say no to him, and that is dangerous,” and Merkt said publicly what many Republicans say privately -- that Christie is “vindictive” and thin-skinned, and that “he does not believe in getting mad, he believes in getting even.”
Whether Christie and/or his top aides were “getting even” with Sokolich and whether they engaged in a subsequent coverup is already the subject of investigations being conducted with subpoena power by Wisniewski’s Assembly Transportation Committee, by United States Attorney Paul Fishman, and by the U.S. Science, Commerce and Transportation Committee chaired by U.S. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV)
Those probes, however, will inevitably widen to focus on the political culture created within Christie’s inner circle that led the governor's deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority, to close access lanes to the world’s busiest bridge as an act of personal political retaliation.
The investigation into the coverup will ask why officials like Michael Drewniak, Christie’s chief spokesman, Port Authority Chairman David Samson, and political consultant Bill Stepien were involved in deciding how to cover up the politics behind the George Washington Bridge lane closures.
The investigators will also want to know why Samson, Drewniak, Stepien, and other top Christie administration officials listed in the emails released last week -- including new Chief of Staff Regina Egea, former Chief Counsel Charles McKenna, and Communications Director Maria Comella -- did not sufficiently investigate Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye’s allegation months ago that the lane closures were politically motivated. Investigators also will want to know whether they discussed their concerns with Christie, and if not, why not.
“I don't think it's credible for a governor to have his chief of staff, his communication director, his deputy chief of staff, all involved, his chief counsel all involved in email communications on the day this took place and the days after talking not only about the problems that were created in Fort Lee, but also talking about how to spin it to the press,” Wisniewski said on CBS’s Face the Nation yesterday.
“Remember, this was in the midst of his re-election campaign,” he said. “Any governor running for re-election is going to want to know about problems that come up, if for no other reason, to know how to respond when asked a question. So these people got an e-mail from the executive director of the Port Authority saying that laws were broken. His chief counsel knew; his deputy chief of staff knew; his incoming chief of staff knew. It just strains credibility that they didn't look at those documents and say, "We ought to let him know about it."Wisniewski’s Assembly Transportation Committee, which originally received subpoena power to investigate the reasons behind the five-year Port Authority toll increase rammed through in 2011, also plans to focus on the increasing politicization of the Port Authority under the direction of Christie appointees Baroni, Wildstein and Samson, which will lead inevitably to increased media scrutiny of other Christie administration political tactics and policy decisions.
If Christie survives months of investigation into the Bridgegate scandal, it is the lasting voter perception of the tenor of Christie’s leadership, the political climate he created, the types of people he appointed and, most of all, whether his hardball politics of personal attack and intimidation are seen as Nixonian in their vindictiveness, that will determine whether he remains a viable presidential candidate.
Long before he emerged on the national stage, Christie developed a reputation for political ruthlessness and outsized ambition. In his first successful campaign for freeholder in staunchly Republican Morris County in 1994, the allegations he levied in his successful primary campaign for county freeholder led two of his GOP rivals to file defamation suits against him. The following year, he and Merkt ran against two Republican Assembly incumbents in a bitter campaign and lost in the GOP primary. Two years later, in 1997, Christie was ousted from his freeholder seat in a heated Republican primary, finishing fourth out of four candidates.
Christie rejuvenated his political career in 2000 by teaming up with his Wall Street financier brother Todd to raise millions for George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, leading Bush to appoint “Big Boy” as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. Christie’s corruption convictions of Democratic and Republican officeholders paved the way for his successful 2009 run for the governorship, but his tenure was not without controversy.
Democrats still complain about Christie’s politically timed leak of a groundless investigation into U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) just weeks before Menendez’s 2006 reelection, and about the multimillion dollar no-bid contracts he gave to his former boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and to a former U.S. Attorney from New York who investigated, but declined to indict, his brother for stock fraud.
Christie brought his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, into the governor’s office as a deputy chief of staff, where he could serve as Christie’s chief political operative -- a common practice in previous administrations. In an administration where politics trumped policy, Stepien was more powerful than his title suggested.
As governor, Christie quickly emerged as a national Republican star for his “take no prisoners” attacks on the state’s public employee unions and for his YouTube video smackdowns of critics at press conferences and town hall meetings packed with cheering supporters. He called a decorated Navy SEAL an “idiot,” denounced Star-Ledger editorial page editor Tom Moran as “thin-skinned,” and urged reporters to “take a bat out” on Weinberg, the Democratic state senator who would later be the first to question the legitimacy of the George Washington Bridge lane closures.
Christie often eschewed policy arguments in favor of launching vitriolic personal attacks on those with whom he disagreed. He attacked David Rosen, the respected, mild-mannered budget analyst for the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, as “the Doctor Kevorkian of the numbers” and a partisan “tool” of the Democrats for daring to disagree with the Christie administration’s revenue projections. “Nothing the governor does is unplanned,” one top administration official said privately when asked about the Rosen attack.
The governor attacked New Jersey Education Association Executive Director Vincent Giordano for his high salary, and accused New Jersey State League of Municipalities Executive Director Bill Dressel of “running a corrupt convention” when a League task force had the temerity to issue a policy tax reform proposal last June in the middle of his reelection campaign.
What voters didn’t always see was Christie’s unwillingness to brook any opposition, either inside or outside his own party. Sen. Sean Kean (R-Monmouth) got knocked down to an Assembly seat after redistricting for mildly criticizing Christie for being on vacation in Florida during a snowstorm, and a Christie aide declared that “he deserved what he got.”The case of Sean Kean (no relation to the former governor) was an example of the tight control Christie exercised over the Republican minority in both the Senate and the Assembly. Over Christie’s four years in office, Republican legislators voted in lockstep with the governor in all but a handful of cases. Unlike past governors, Christie did not allow legislators in vulnerable districts to get out of voting for controversial bills when there were enough votes for passage without them.
Christie reserved his greatest disdain for the public employee unions. When Bill Lavin, president of the New Jersey Fireman’s Benevolent Association, suggested in a radio interview a few months into Christie’s first term that the governor should meet with his union to try to reach a compromise on pending legislation, he said he got a phone call from a Christie political operative with a message for him from the governor: “Go f--- yourself.” He told Lavin that Christie told him to use those exact words.
The operative who made the call was Bill Baroni.
Baroni, a Christie confidante who had played Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in debate prep for the Christie campaign, was a rising star in the New Jersey GOP, a popular state senator from a swing district straddling the Mercer and Middlesex County suburbs and a potential future GOP candidate for governor or U.S. Senate.
He was also Christie’s choice to serve as deputy executive director of the Port Authority, a bistate agency with a budget larger than 26 states that runs six New York-New Jersey bridges, three airports, two ports, and the PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) light rail line. As the No. 2 administrator, Baroni would be Christie’s top political operative at the Port Authority, directly negotiating New Jersey’s interests with executive directors appointed by the New York governor.
Christie also put David Wildstein, a former Republican mayor of Livingston who had served as the mysterious editor and columnist “Wally Edge” at PolitickerNJ.com, in a $150,000-a-year post as Director of Interstate Capital Projects at the Port Authority. Wildstein, who was famous at Politickernj.com for telling his reporters that policies and issues don’t matter, only politics does, would serve as Christie’s and Baroni’s political “eyes and ears.”
Christie said last week that Wildstein was Baroni’s choice, and denied that he and Wildstein were “friends” or even “acquaintances” at Livingston High School. But Christie’s high school baseball coach told the New Republic that Christie, the star catcher, would have known Wildstein because he was sitting on the bench as the team’s statistician.
Wildstein was one of more than 50 patronage hires sent to the Port Authority by Christie in what Princeton University Professor Jameson W. Doig, whose Empire on the Hudson is the authoritative history of the agency, criticized as an unprecedented politicization of the 92-year-old authority. Baroni was at the Port Authority just six months when he found himself serving as point man for Christie’s decision to cancel the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) rail passenger tunnel that was the largest public works project in the nation and return $3 billion in dedicated federal transportation grant money that U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) had fought for years to secure.
Christie said he was worried about potential cost overruns on the project that would be borne by New Jersey taxpayers. He gave U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a respected Republican congressman who had been appointed by Democratic President Barack Obama, just 30 days to satisfy his objections before pulling the plug on the tunnel, which had been in the planning stages for 15 years under five previous Republican and Democratic governors. Christie’s decision made him the darling of conservative talk radio and inspired winning Republican gubernatorial candidates he campaigned for in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida to cancel major rail projects in their states after they won.
Christie’s reason for giving LaHood such a short deadline became clear less than two months later when he announced in December 2010 that he would be diverting $1.5 billion in Port Authority funds and $1.4 billion in New Jersey Turnpike Authority toll money set aside for the ARC tunnel to provide the state matching funds needed to renew the Transportation Trust Fund without raising the gas tax, which would have violated Christie’s “no tax increase” pledge.
The following summer, in August 2011, Baroni served as Christie’s point man on a five-year toll hike that would raise tolls on the George Washington Bridge, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the Outerbridge Crossing, and the Bayonne and Goethals bridges from $8 at the time to $15 by 2015.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.
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 organizationssubpoenaed 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.
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.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.
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.